Is worrying about food miles missing the point?

transport ship
CC BY 2.0 Alan Miles NYC

Lat week the Sunday Observer edition of the Guardian published Jay Rayner's article Why worrying about food miles is missing the point. The Dek starts with " Getting your lamb from New Zealand isn't hurting the planet and buying your potatoes from the other end of the country is fine. Jay Rayner says food miles are not the problem." Given that we have discussing this New Zealand lamb issue since 2006 and there appeared to be nothing new here, I ignored it. But the story is getting picked up everywhere, so it is time to dig out the archives.

He quotes a study, Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand's Agriculture Industry and writes:

According to this exceptionally detailed study from 2006, lamb, apples and dairy produced in New Zealand and shipped to Britain have a smaller carbon footprint than the equivalent products produced in Britain. To be exact, the UK uses twice as much carbon per tonne of milk solids produced as New Zealand, and four times the amount as New Zealand for lamb.

While he does mention that the study is from 2006, he doesn't mention why British lamb had such a big footprint. In one of the many debunkings of the study, Michael Shuman did, quoted in TreeHugger:

The explanation of most of the difference in the two country's carbon emissions turns out to be coal. Typical British farmers use more electricity - both directly and indirectly for the processing of its fertilizers, feeds, and additives - and are thereby saddled with the emissions from lots of dirty coal plants. New Zealand has lots of hydroelectric dams. So those poor bionic sheep in the United Kingdom inherit a huge carbon price tag. This also means that as the British move toward renewable energy sources, as they plan to do, the New Zealand carbon advantage will vanish.

And indeed, during the last seven years, the carbon content of British electricity has reduced significantly. There are other factors, which I wrote about in Stop Eating Fossil Fuels, Start Eating Food, the main one being that the study did not take into account that as Mat wrote, "Just 15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760 million cars"

Shuman concluded in his article in the Ethicurian, noting that there is a lot more going on when you talk about local, seasonal, healthy food:

The Saunders’ study is a nice promo for the New Zealand lamb industry, but it’s a lousy piece of analysis. Real localization means avoiding environmentally unsound inputs of outside fertilizer, feed, and additives. It means pruning away the vast economic waste associated with ad agencies and middle people. It means avoiding trucking food around either nationally or internationally. Account for these items comprehensively and fairly, and local food wins out environmentally over global food almost every time.

Tags: 100 Mile Diet | Local Food