How Not to Write a Food Miles Column

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 connection has been an area of particular interest here.

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(image from the BBC)

In this recent article, from last November, Bailey uses flawed assumptions, undeveloped concepts, and weak historical awareness to guide a column.

"Thank you for the disingenuous article," writes one reader, which I think sums it up well.

About Bailey's text:

"But for some activists, eating local foods is no longer just a pleasure--it is a moral obligation. Why? Because locally produced foods are supposed to be better for the planet than foods shipped thousands of miles across oceans and continents. According to these activists, shipping foods over long distances results in the unnecessary emission of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. This concern has given rise to the concept of "food miles," that is, the distance food travels from farm to plate. Activists particularly dislike air freighting foods because it uses relatively more energy than other forms of transportation. Food miles are supposed to be a simple way to gauge food's impact on climate change."

[No, Food Miles are also a way to help consumers recognize the distance between their homes and their food sources, one consequence of which--among many--is the energy required to get it to them. See here for more explanation of Food Miles. Bailey does not appear to knows much about the concept but from hearing tell in a noisy room where he was only half listening.]

"Food miles advocates fail to grasp the simple idea that food should be grown where it is most economically advantageous to do so."

[Bailey fails to 'grasp the simple idea' that ecology and economy are associated in a far more complex way than he suggests. He also fails to grasp the idea that environmentally meaningful issues like food choices, production methods, and distribution patterns include a great deal of culture within them. Why does he want fresh-cut flowers from Colombia or lamb from New Zealand or strawberries from Kenya? When did he start to want those? Why didn't his parents need them? What does he consider a good meal?]

"A die-hard response to the above studies would be: Don't eat either British or Spanish tomatoes out of season; don't cold store apples, dry them in the sun instead; don't ever eat dairy products; and give your true love a bouquet of in-season root vegetables for Valentine's Day. ... In other words, spend more time and effort finding, growing, and preparing food at the expense of other productive or leisure activities."

[This is nonsensical -- "die-hard"? I take it he is suggesting that there is one logic to the claims for local food, and that said logic leads one to imagined logical ends. As in, 'since I support local food, I am only allowed to eat local food.' Instead of: 'since local food offers ecological, economic, and cultural advantages, I will work to maximize those while minimizing far-traveled and (usually) chemically dependent commodities.']

"the food miles campaign is 'providing a new set of rhetorical tools to bolster protectionist interests that are fundamentally detrimental to most of humankind.' Ultimately, Desrochers and Shimizu's analysis shows that 'the concept of food miles is...a profoundly flawed sustainability indicator.'"

[Along with the link a few parentheticals above, see here to get a better sense of the origins of the food miles concept -- when one reads actual studies of food miles and one traces the use and growth of the term, one finds that advocates don't propose it as a comprehensive sustainability indicator. This is like criticizing someone who rides a bike of believing that bicycle riding alone will save the rain forests. Or something like that, I'm at a loss for a strong analogy, forgive me.]

Finally, I want to paste a comment from the Reason website in response to the article that does a nice job of calling out the author:

As several respondents have already noted, environmental activism is not the primary reason that the local foods movement has been growing. It's been growing because people enjoy meeting people who grow their food, they want to support their local economy and they feel like they're getting a fresher product and often a better deal when they buy local. Consider the statistics. According to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, there were about 1,600 farmers markets in the U.S. in 1994. In 2006, there were 4,385, and in 2008, there were almost 4,700. Similarly, currently lists about 9,000 small U.S. farms that sell direct to the public. By contrast, the "localvore" concept--limiting yourself to a diet of food grown or raised within 100 to 200 miles of your residence--is only about 3 years old. There's no way that hard core food activism is the primary driver behind this trend.

Also, the vast majority of crop subsidies given away by the U.S. government go to row crop farmers--really, really large farmers and corporate farms that grow things like corn, wheat and soybeans. In fact, fruits and vegetables are still referred to as "specialty crops" in U.S. Farm Bill legislation. Fruit and vegetable growers, particularly small fruit and vegetable growers, aren't benefiting from U.S. crop subsidies, so it's not plausible to argue that there are any market distortions at work here that benefit this trend in the U.S.

Finally, since when are environmentalists concerned about "food miles" arguing that we should grow local bananas everywhere, including Iceland? People who advocate local foods for environmental reasons argue that people should base their diets on foods grown locally and in-season. Disparage the idea all you want, but at least give your straw men the benefit of consistency.

More wheel spinning, all told.

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Interesting. I'd never heard of this, although I was aware of some of the issues regarding transportation of food. I'm not surprised that Reason got it wrong. I used to read them, but stopped after a few too many non-sensical or flat-out-wrong articles for my taste. I may have to use this post for reference in the future. Thanks.

It sounds as though Bailey believes that the relentless pursuit of efficiency is the correct basis for all economic decisions. But as James Surowiecki pointed out in The Perils of Efficiency, efficiency is only one criterion to use in the evaluation of economic activity. Sustainability and reliability happen to be rather important with regard to the food supply. It might make a lot more sense to pay more for food now, if that ensures a reliable supply, as opposed to saving money by having food shipped from across the world.

Some day, that ship might not come.

Indeed, it is reasonably certain that some day, it will not come. Yeah, economists tell us that someone else will rise up to meet the need, but they do not tell us when that someone will come around. You may very well starve to death before the need is met.