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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New Zealand Forestry and California Dreaming


“We Californians are really not very good conservationists – we’re very good preservationists. Conservation means you use resources well and responsibly. Preservation means you are rich enough to set aside things you want and buy them from someone else.” – William Libby, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

New Zealand harvests trees.

Today, with over four million acres (an area larger than Connecticut) of tree plantations, New Zealand is more than self-sufficient. Forest exports contribute over $(US) 1.8 billion to the New Zealand economy, roughly 3.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP). Wood is their number three export after meat and dairy.

To me, a California forester, it’s heaven with a lower case “H.” Mind you, they don’t cut native trees. They cut California trees: California’s Monterey pine(Pinus radiata) to be precise.


Radiata pine is the primary species grown for wood because it grows fast and straight there. Jeff Tombleson, of New Zealand’s Forest Research Institute says, “to paraphrase Henry Ford, we think any tree is fine as long as it’s radiata pine…it’s our ‘New Zealand mahogany.’”

The Kiwis have improved the crops both mechanically and genetically. They prune the trees to create clear, knot-free timber. They plant radiata pine from rooted cuttings rather than seedlings because the results are better. The cuttings are from well-formed trees selected over many years. They ship the wood all over the globe—even to California.

They work at meeting the world’s market demands of the world. And the market demands sustainable forestry. They need to meet the certification standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to classed as a ‘green producer’ by Home Depot and others.

FSC began in 1993. It is an independent, not for profit, non-governmental organization based in Germany. It promotes environmentally appropriate management of the world’s forests that is also socially beneficial and economically viable. FSC sets standards and accredits companies and organizations practicing responsible forestry.

California, and the United States, may have something to learn from New Zealand. Currently California could grow and produce all the wood it needs. Many people point to the native forests to meet the demand. There is enough timber now in our forests to provide what the state needs, and we could grow it in a sustainable way. Yet these same areas are also valued for old-growth and endangered-species habitat, recreation, or other values.

To protect these values, there are also those who promote replacing wood with other products such as plastics or hemp. Both of these options have negative costs. Plastics come from nonrenewable sources from unstable areas: either politically or environmentally (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – ANWAR). Hemp, straw (for straw bale building), and other annual crops are monocultures. Monocultures require frequent applications of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to keep down pests and stimulate growth. Those who argue that radiata pine plantations are monocultures only need to listen to the animal life and see the undergrowth to recognize the difference.

This is what a plantation looks like, it's hardly a monoculture

This is what a plantation looks like, it's hardly a monoculture

And, trees are the skyscrapers of the plant world. They put a huge amount of biomass in a smaller area of land than other plants.

We could replicate what the Kiwis have, that is, grow more wood on fewer acres. Forest geneticist William Libby, Ph.D. says increases of 40% in productivity are easily obtainable in American forests. Instead, California imports 75% of its wood, meanwhile New Zealand produces enough wood to take care of its own needs and exports the surplus.

I will return to New Zealand. It is a place of beauty with an undercurrent of optimism. David Young the author of Our Islands, Our Selves – A History of Conservation in New Zealand, sums it up this way, “we think we can; and therefore we do.”

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New Zealand Forestry (Part 1)

I liked New Zealand the moment I arrived.

I arrived in early 2005 for a forester’s tour intent on “learning about forest ecology, biodiversity, conservation policy, the forest economy, and intensive plantation management.” I spent my first night there in Wellington, which felt like a smaller version of San Francisco. It had hills, Victorian houses, and spectacular views of the ocean.

Wellington, NZ (Wikipedia image)

New Zealand’s like California in many ways. It is only slightly smaller than California with a similar climate. Like California, New Zealand is part of the ‘ring of fire’ and has frequent earthquakes. And, the people radiate a pioneer vibrancy. They come from Polynesia, and the United Kingdom and its former British colonies. The ‘Kiwis’ have an independent can-do streak. New Zealand even had a gold rush complete with placer mining.

While the land area is near in size to California’s, the population size is closer to Los Angeles. Sheep outnumber people by ten to one. The largest city, Auckland, has one-tenth the population of LA. Another big difference for me, an LA kid familiar with LA freeways – they drive on the wrong side of the road.

Though the land area is near in size to California’s, the population size is closer just over one-tenth of California’s. Sheep outnumber people by ten to one. Perhaps as a result, Kiwis are intimate with the land. Their livelihoods derive from it.

The Kiwis still harvest trees. Wood is their number-three export after meat and dairy. While California imports 75% of its wood, New Zealand produces enough wood to take care of its own needs and even exports the surplus. To me, a California forester, it’s heaven with a lower case “H.” They even cut California trees: California’s Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) to be precise.

New Zealand and Australia as well, had planted radiata pine in a big way. They were growing pines that would qualify in California as “Heritage” tree size and harvesting them in only 25 years. In fact, one-acre of Monterey pine in New Zealand produces almost ten times more wood than our most productive natural forest.

NZ's North Island Superimposed at Corresponding Latitude

NZ's North Island Superimposed at Corresponding Latitude

Their love for radiata pine started around the mid 19th century when wool was the high-end commodity: ‘a pound for a pound’ meaning a pound sterling for a pound of wool. Follow the money, they cleared the native forests and converted the land to pasture for sheep.

In 1905, their annual timber cut peaked and began to decline. The 1913 Royal Commission sounded the alarm: New Zealand needed more wood than remaining native forests could provide. The commission recommended an aggressive program of intensive forest plantations. They believed the native tree species would be too slow growing to provide for their domestic wood needs. They planted many different types of trees to replace the bush that they had cleared: ponderosa pine, black pine, larch, coast redwood, Douglas-fir, and Monterey pine to name a few. They succeeded. New Zealand saved ten acres of native forest for every one-acre planted.

In the 1960’s, the Kiwis really got serious.

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