Food writers, little help please? More bunk about Food Miles.

And yet it continues. I'm so naïve. I was astonished several months ago to note that the same food miles and local food conversation was going on and on. But here it is again. The same one. Anew. Again. More. the. Same.

i-42a3aa94cf533f27c6e3d8e43ca1b586-Food Miles.Chicago.Leopold Center.2002.JPG

(from a study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, 2001-2002)

Another Food Miles article, another bad article. This one from Jane Black writing at Slate (though she's a food writer for the Washington Post). She carries forward the single variable case to skim the surface of the issue. Fine, journalists skim surfaces, it's what they do. But if it's the same Food Miles article, again and again and again and again and again, then try to dig a little deeper. Local food, which can often be understood by seeking fewer food miles--distance from farm to fork--is about more than a technical calculation of carbon emissions.

The Concept of Food Miles was introduced in the 1990s as a way to provide a sense of connection, or disconnection, as it were, between consumers and producers. It acts to give an image to what sociologist Alastair Iles calls a "missing object"--we can't see the food moving, so we have no sense of it; we can't see where our food comes from, so we have no connection to its production and distribution; the decisions we thus make as food consumers are based on abstractions about and vague images of real environmental things. "Food Miles" offer a rudimentary way to give meaning to that invisible space. It is a portable term, useful as a substitute standing in for greater meaning.

The term gained public notice earlier this decade (I first saw it in a Bill McKibben article in Harpers several years ago) after the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture did some calculations on Iowa food to match a number to the concept. The "1500 mile" figure now used and repeated in story after story owes its genesis to the Leopold Center's work. Jane Black's article says as much. And then makes the banal observation that the figure is actually different in Oklahoma, or Austin, or New York. She follows the "breaking news" that the figure varies by location by concluding that fewer food miles are not so great -- since the 1500 mile figure doesn't reach the universality of Newton's Law.

Maybe that's just me being irritable. I'll own up to that. But then she simply mis-states the situation, noting this: "[N]ew studies show that in some cases it can actually be more environmentally responsible to produce food far from home. According to a 2006 report from New Zealand's Lincoln University, it is four times more energy efficient for Londoners to buy New Zealand lamb, which is grass-fed and shipped halfway 'round the world, than to buy lamb raised on grain in England."

No. New studies do not show that it is "more environmentally responsible to produce food far from home." New studies show that carbon accounting is more complicated than food miles. That's the valid point from the New Zealand group. But carbon accounting alone does not environmental responsibility make. There's just a lot more to local food systems. (See this post.) Buying local is not a matter of reductive carbon calculations. Criminy.

She also quotes the study from this past Spring in Env. Sci. and Tech. (which we pointed to here) to say that "if we want to combat global warming, cutting back on meat may be more effective than buying local produce."

Which has her shifting the point from the value of local food systems to the fight against global warming. (It also conflates research on vegetables with research on meat.) Yet, as any local food advocate will tell you, eating local is about more than fighting global warming. Yes, it could also be about countering global warming, but that is part of a broader moral and environmental outlook.

So in the end, the Slate article follows what appears to be a new standard pattern:
1. Misrepresent the value of Food Miles by ignoring the historical and cultural purpose of the concept.
2. Pretend incorrectly that local food advocates share that misrepresented view, that they only care about carbon emissions.
3. Claim that since "Food Miles" is a simple measure not entirely accounting for carbon issues, then its use is without value.
4. Conclude by saying that since the Food Miles concept is without value--doesn't fight global warming, as the misrepresentation goes--who cares where you get your food.

Good god, food journalists, help us out a little, please.

More like this

Resolved: a host of academic, journalistic, and community-based work has increased its focus in recent years on the matter of local food. In no way could I summarize the breadth of that work. But I am frequently surprised to find the same conversations going on, over and over again. For example…
Herein, discussion of another recent piece on agriculture and science - the third one, as foreshadowed in my last post - this one an editorial in the Times that touches on Food Miles. (Thanks to Laura for sending it along.) Food Miles are the distance food travels to get to your plate. The author…
Example #2,724: Ronald Bailey, "The Food Miles Mistake," in Reason Magazine. As readers of this site know, we've weighed in numerous times of the Food Miles issue. Among the great many cases of public environmental debate that require a move beyond superficial parlor talk, the agriculture-energy…
Slate has a column called "The Green Lantern: Illuminating answers to environmental questions." This response to a question about CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) was nicely done. CSAs are one of the many things Michael Pollan touched on in his recent, already widely read, already widely…

And if you add GE vs organic into it, you will find another set of discussions stuck in the quagmire.

The whole concept of a first approximation, or of a simplified model, is extremely challenging to innumerate people. Good god, math teachers, help us out too!

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 22 Sep 2008 #permalink

Although I hope "food miles" will not become to the organic foods industry as the concept of "GNP" is to economics, I cannot help but think that it will. That it is a term easily appropriated by single-variable analysts is not surprising. If anything, it is slightly depressing.

However, if you consider the mechanism by which global business is conducted, this is what you are going to get - a single number that (misguided and inappropriate to fit a wide variety of causes as it may be) ends up being the "standard" measure.

Of course, I could be wrong. (And that might not be such a bad thing if a more comprehensive set of variables is used.)

Food miles is a good concept. So is eating low on the food chain (i.e., carbon, CV health, bioaccumulation of POPs). Surprisingly (for some), these concepts can be used together. Or not. I think this blogger's point was captured well (in general terms) by the old book, Going Local. Many advantages to local besides carbon.