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January 30, 2013

Food Miles

Surely you’re aware the term food miles doesn’t equate to how many burgers it takes, for example, to get from Ayers Rock to the coastline. Instead, the term has steadily grown throughout households to empower the carbon conscious consumer – it’s a way for us to cut back on the transportation of imported food (and hence the burning of fossil fuels) by buying locally sourced produce.

However, while there’s many good reasons for buying and eating locally produced food – such as taste, purity, health, community involvement and the preservation of land, the term food miles plays less of a role in carbon emissions than one might think. Or at least it has a more complicated involvement.

Food miles - photo by Peretz Partensky; Flickr - peretzp

Food miles - photo by cpwebb25 (Flickr)The phrase “food miles”, coined by Professor Tim Lang at the Sustainable Agriculture Food and Environment Alliance in the UK in the early 90s, while widely used, has also been heavily criticised. Prominent New Zealand environmental organisation Landcare Research-Manaaki Whenua, says localism “is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle than during transport.”

In fact, research undertaken by scientists and authors Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews reveal that most of the greenhouse gases created by food are done so in the production phases, where 83% of all food emissions are produced. So an increase in food miles doesn’t necessarily equate to an increase in carbon emissions.

In one example, Scientists from Lincoln University found that lamb raised on healthy clover pastures in New Zealand and shipped to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per tonne, while British grown lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per tonne, partly because poorer British pastures forced farmers to use feed.

Relative distances and mode of transportation also make calculating food miles complicated. For example, foods transported in bulk from a distant farm to a nearby store produce a lower carbon footprint than food picked up by a consumer (in a car) directly from a farm which lies further away than the store. However, what a consumer could do to reduce their carbon footprint in this case is to walk, use a bicycle or take public transport to the farm.

An interesting point made by author James E. McWilliams, is that it’s impossible for most of the world to feed itself “a diverse and healthy diet” solely through local food production. “Food will always have to travel”, he says. He continues, “wouldn’t it make sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographic advantages?” (Such as the transportation of New Zealand bred sheep).

This is not meant to discourage anyone from growing veggies in the garden, rather it’s to point out that distance (or the term food miles) is not necessarily the enemy, and that local sustainable food systems must be allowed to grow in tandem with an equally sustainable global food system – a system where food production and transport is streamlined to mitigate environmental impact.

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