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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