Why "Food Miles" Over Simplify the Local Food Debate


Image credit: Leslie Main Johnson, used under Creative Commons license.

When I posted a video of what large-scale shiitake mushroom growing looks like, it included a rant from one of the farmers about a long-term retail customer who had recently abandoned them, after finding a supplier that was nearer to market. There's much more to local food, argued the farmer, than simply its location, and it's important to support small-scale family farmers wherever possible. She may have a point. The Carbon Footprint of Local Food
Pablo and Lloyd have already looked at the carbon footprint of local food, arguing that miles to market are just one part of the equation—with means of production, means of shipping, and processing, packaging and retail emissions all contributing to overall emissions too. And Lloyd has made the case that local food is about more than just carbon anyway, with taste, nutrition, accountability and a connection to our farmers being just as important. (He also argued that the nascent local food distribution system does need some help in terms of efficiency.)

Is Local Food About More Than Location?
If that's the case though, and local food really is about more than location, then is there a danger that focusing on food miles will overshadow the bigger picture? How do we balance the idea of local as being simply nearby, versus local as an integrated part of a sustainable, resilient food system?

Living in North Carolina, a major pork producing state, I could go to any number of barbecue restaurants and enjoy technically "local" meat—but I could be almost certain that these pigs would have been raised in appalling factory farm conditions, most likely never seeing the light of day. Similarly, I may find a restaurant serving humanely raised pork from the mountains of NC,that has traveled a little further, but was farmed with an eye to sustainability, ethics, and an integrated, holistic food system. I'm pretty sure I know which one I would choose.

Divergent Remedies for Sustainable Farming
Just to add to the complication, we have some folks claiming that organic farming uses less energy than conventional, others that small-scale agriculture could double crop yields in developing nations, and still others who are adamant that industrial monoculture is the true path to sustainability.

As with most things in the green movement, there are almost certainly no black and white answers—but that's precisely why we can't allow ourselves to focus solely on over-simplified metrics like food miles or carbon footprints. While they may be useful tools, they can also become a major distraction. We have to look at the complete picture, even if it sometimes makes our heads hurt.

More on Local Food, Sustainability and Carbon Emissions
Is Industrial Monoculture the True Path to Sustainable Farming?
Pablo Looks at the Carbon Footprint of Local Food
Local Food is Better, and it's About More than Just Carbon
Organic Farming Uses Less Energy, Searches for Even Lower Impact
Small-Scale Agriculture Could Double Crop Yields in Developing Nations

Tags: Agriculture | Economics | Farming | Local Food | United States