The Question of Food Miles

As more and more Americans demonstrate specific environmental concerns, like hoping to shrink their “carbon footprint,” the idea of “food miles” has become a popular rally point. Such campaigns push for labels which indicate how many miles the food has traveled to the market, an indication of the environmental impact of packaging and transporting certain foods. With my interest in smaller-scale, local agriculture, I have certainly expressed optimism with this concept. The idea seems logical, and I’m always an advocate of fresher food.

In an opinion article entitled “Food That Travels Well” published today in The New York Times, James McWilliams, a similar optimist, examines the results of a recent study conducted in New Zealand. This Lincoln University study looked more closely at the concept of food miles, examining more factors of energy consumption, such as water use, harvesting techniques, means of transportation, and more. McWilliams summarizes the findings,

Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

For many advocates of local agriculture, and even the passionate locavores, these findings may come as somewhat of a shock. But, I agree with McWilliams in that it doesn’t have to be a cause for alarm. We can still encourage the development of local, sustainable agriculture, but with the understanding that globalization is generally a beneficial initiative. Globalization allows the resources of the world to be more equally distributed throughout its inhabitants. Fertile hubs of food production can provide for more arid regions, with more of an emphasis on renewable energy and hybrid engines in food transportation.

The growing use of the internet, global fads, multiculturalism, commerce, and the obvious political realities attest to the our growing global connectivity and interdependence. Globalization is a very much the reality of our lives. When we talk about the benefits of sustainable agriculture and local food, we must examine its relation to this concept, however more difficult our choices become.

  • gilli

    I really enjoyed your post
    As New Zealanders we are concerned about the British trying to ban products from our part of the world (carbon footprint) so it was really interesting to see the results of that Lincoln University test.
    We are all interested in supoortiung local produce but some countries just can’t produce enough food for their people. Our produce is excellent hope you get to try some one day.

  • Caley

    Thanks Gilli, i would love to try New Zealand produce someday (not to mention visit your corner of the globe). Checked out your blog and your recipes look tasty too! The cheese and olive bread looks fantastic! Yum!

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