Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Food miles is not the issue

Or at least not the only issue, or the most crucial issue. It's one small part of the greater picture of eating locally and an even smaller part of the question of global climate change. As Michael Specter points out in this month's New Yorker, in an article on carbon footprinting entitled Big Foot:

"Food carries enormous symbolic power, so the concept of “food miles”—the distance a product travels from the farm to your home—is often used as a kind of shorthand to talk about climate change in general."
But that symbolic power doesn't automatically translate into importance in the big picture.
“People should stop talking about food miles,” Adrian Williams told [Specter]. “It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic.” Williams is an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University, in England. He has been commissioned by the British government to analyze the relative environmental impacts of a number of foods. “The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby—well, it’s just idiotic,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.”

I agree. Food miles is not the issue. Other things being equal, it's better for food to travel less. But things are seldom truly equal. We can grow tomatoes here in Ohio in the dead of winter, but it takes energy to keep them warm and well-lit enough. So in February is a local hothouse tomato necessarily less impactful than one shipped in from California?

Of course, who wants to eat hothouse OR shippable tomatoes? I'll wait for August, thanks!

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