The Food-Miles Dilemma

English: Over Farm produce The vegetables and ...

Produce with labels listing their food miles. Image via Wikipedia

In Michael Pollan’s New York Times essay, The Food Issue – An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief , he says, “[W]hen we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

It would seem to be a no-brainer that local produce needs less fuel to get to market than something that had to be carted halfway around the world, but cargo trucks and railcars carry more than pickups and vans can, so their fuel cost per pound is often less. Farm-to-market fuel is a small piece of the farm-to-table energy pie with transportation accounting for a small slice of the energy pie.

Household storage and preparation of food uses more than twice the farm-to-market energy (32 percent). Thankfully, we don’t hear pleas for us to give up refrigeration and eat only raw foods to eliminate the energy costs of storage and preparation. Oh, wait. We do hear that.

It is fashionable these days to decry “food miles.” The longer food has spent traveling to your plate, the more oil has been burnt and the more peace has been shattered along the way. But why single out food? Should we not protest against T-shirt miles, too, and laptop miles? After all, fruits and vegetables account for more than 20 percent of all exports from poor countries, whereas most laptops come from rich countries, so singling out food imports for special discrimination means singling out poor countries for sanctions. Two economists recently concluded, after studying the issue, that the entire concept of food miles is a “profoundly flawed sustainability indicator.” Getting food from the farmer to the shop causes just 4% of all its lifetime emissions…A New Zealand lamb, shipped to England, requires one-quarter as much carbon to get on to a London plate as a Welsh lamb; a Dutch rose, grown in a heated greenhouse and sold in London, has six times the carbon footprint of a Kenyan rose grown under the sun using water recycled through a fish farm, using geothermal electricity and providing employment to Kenyan women. – The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley

Tyler Cowen points out that Pollan (in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) also “argues against free trade in agriculture, on the grounds that the economics will bankrupt family farms and destabilize the market; Pollan fears centralization and the industrial mode of production. He does not note, however, that New Zealand has moved to free agricultural markets—virtually no subsidies or tariffs—and its farms, including family farms, have flourished. Nor should we forget that farm protectionism, as practiced in the EU and elsewhere, costs billions and damages economic development in poorer countries that might otherwise ship foodstuffs to the wealthier West.”

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I think Brendan O’Neil’s essay on the new enviro-asceticism is brilliant. I especially liked:

Eating, drinking, playing, procreating – everything is carbon-calculated, everything is carbonised. These carbon-calculations really represent a moral judgement on our lives. They [today’s environmentalists] make everything into a potential sin, a crime against the planet. They send the very powerful message that to live, to travel, to breed, to immerse yourself in every human experience is bad – whereas to stay still, to stay put, to be meek, to be quiet, to grow your own is good. Experimentation and experience are potentially polluting; restraint is pure.

What do you think? Was learning to cook with fire where humans went wrong?

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1.4 earths: sustainability and overshoot, or 6 earths and the moon for dessert

I like to think of myself as a good person of the Boy Scout variety–trustworthy, brave, kind, helpful, etc.–except without the homophobia. You probably like to think the same (of yourself, not me). Well, according to the Global Footprint Network’s “Footprint Calculator” it would take six earths if all 6.7 billion of us lived a wicked, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent lifestyle such as mine, or yours for that matter. Turns out my footprint falls within the average for an American. And, according to the Footprint Network, because of selfish people such as you and I, it takes 1.4 earths to support our sorry butts. In other words, they say you and I are taking more than our fair share through overharvesting of pretty much everything, and depleting the earth’s future cupboard as a result: we’re overdrawing the earth’s bank account and living on credit; we can do it for a short time but over the long-run it bankrupts the earth.

Shoot, maybe I’m not a good person. Already, I can hear the Footprint police shaking their organically carbon-neutral fingers at me, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Why can’t you be like the North Korean peasants? They live on just five per cent as much as you by eating only dried yak dung. Now turn around, put that bag of chips back and turn off the air conditioner, television, computer, washing machine, answering machine, lights, refrigerator, freezer, hair dryer, water heater, radio, MP3 player, everything that requires energy. And, while you’re at it…don’t breathe so much!” Sigh…oops, I put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, I guess I’d better go buy some carbon offsets; but if I buy offsets that means turning on something and that means using energy. Sigh…

Like the Global Footprint Network, Bill McKibben pessimistically sees limitations, “(W)e’re going to have to figure out how to stop focusing on our economies of growth, and start thinking about survival. That means embracing local, smaller-scale ways of living, like it or not.”

Others optimistically see limitless opportunities for humans and our globe. Optimism is a tough sell. Molly Ivins said, “It’s hard to argue against cynics–they always sound smarter than optimists because they have so much evidence on their side,” but she never met Matt Ridley, the Rational Optimist. He has evidence that says we need to keep going the way we’ve been going if we want to not simply survive but thrive. While McKibben tells us to slam on the brakes to keep the world from careening off the cliff; Ridley, with an Indiana Jones grins, says “Trust me. Floor the accelerator.”

In the foreword of his book, “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves,” Ridley writes, “I find that my disagreement is mostly with reactionaries of all political colours: blue ones who dislike cultural change, red ones who dislike economic change and green ones who dislike technological change…(H)uman progress has, on balance, been a good thing…(The world) is richer, healthier, and kinder too, as much because of commerce as despite it.”

You see, the more we trade goods and services, the more we trade ideas as well. Those ideas he says, “have sex.” Like DNA recombining to make unique individuals, bits of ideas cross-fertilize with others to make better ways of doing things. “In a nutshell,” Ridley says, “the most sustainable thing we can do, and the best for the planet, is to accelerate technological change and economic growth.”

While cynics and pessimists may sound smarter, in the past they have been wrong about the future. Despite their warning Jeremiads of deprivation and doom, we live longer and better, and on far less land than ever before.

I’m feeling better about myself already.

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