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The Truth About Food Miles

June 23rd, 2010

local-food-miles.jpgThe “100 Mile Diet” is a popular trend that espouses the need to purchase locally grown food for a variety of different reasons. Proponents of this diet and lifestyle believe that by avoiding supermarkets and imported food, you are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and buying healthier, tastier food. While buying local does have benefits, it is a highly romanticized ideal and does not consider the realities of today’s market and agricultural industry.

Transportation (i.e. food miles) is only one part of the environmental impact equation that must be considered when making a consumer choice. Food miles are inaccurate in that other inputs that go into food production are not considered. For example, fertilizer, water, and heat are also required to produce food. In many cases a locally grown product will require considerably more inputs due to less suitable growing conditions. This may actually offset the benefits of buying local. This is particularly true in regions with growing seasons constrained by cold temperatures or lack of moisture.

A good example to illustrate this scenario is strawberries. In the Canadian prairie province of Alberta it is impossible to grow strawberries locally on a year round basis without considerable inputs. The fruit must be grown indoors in a greenhouse environment. Greenhouses are costly to heat, especially through a Canadian winter. Due to the short amount of daylight during the winter, artificial lights must be used for growing. Pests, common in greenhouses, must be kept at bay using chemicals. Compare these conditions to California, where less inputs are required (heat and sunlight are supplied by nature). Yes, the fruit will have to travel north on a truck to Alberta and that will produce greenhouse gases. However, when you consider the total environmental cost of the entire “seed to plate” lifecycle of each scenario, it is often more environmentally friendly for the person living in Alberta to buy the California strawberries.

The climactic difference between regions or countries is precisely why food trade relationships have evolved. It is impossible to assume that every country is able or should be required to produce all of their own food. If food security is a concern, it actually makes more sense to solidify trade relationships between countries that are producing food in an economically sustainable manner.

Consumer travel to and from farmers markets must also be included in the overall environmental equation. Since consumers who shop at farmers markets typically demand fresh produce, they may make several more shopping trips per week than a consumer who doesn’t mind canned or frozen food. This often means more trips using a car. Distances traveled to farmers markets are usually greater than the drive or walk to the local supermarket. Compared to the economies of scale gained by commercial transport (using large trucks decreases the cost of transport per unit of food), individual consumers using cars several times per week to visit a farmers market is grossly inefficient.

The idea that local food is somehow inherently safer and better tasting than imported or commercially produced food is often used as an argument for the “100 Mile Diet”. In terms of food safety regulation, it is clearly more difficult to regulate many small individual businesses rather than a smaller number of large businesses. Although it may be true that farmers markets supply very fresh food, this does not mean that the food is automatically tastier or healthier than food purchased at large supermarkets. The truth is farmers markets have little or no regulations around food safety.

There is nothing wrong with choosing locally grown food. There are many benefits to the local economy and community, and it helps re-establish the lost connection between urban dwellers and agriculture. However, using food miles as the sole justification for buying local is not a robust argument as was demonstrated with the strawberries example. Consumer choices are driven by individual preference and market conditions, but should also be guided by sound, factual information. By only thinking in terms of food miles, consumers are ignoring the environmental impacts of other production inputs such as water and fertilizer. The entire “seed to plate” equation should be used for a more reliable and accurate assessment of the total environmental impact and cost of food production.


This article was supplied by Lily Hurley from Constant Content.


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