Food miles are a distraction. Local food is not.

freerange chickens photo
CC BY-ND 2.0 friendsoffamilyfarmers

The other week, Lloyd posted a response to a Jay Rayner article which had argued that worrying about food miles was missing the point.

It's hardly a brand new topic—I've argued before that "food miles" oversimplify a complex issue, and Pablo and Lloyd have looked at the carbon footprint of local food.Still, as Jay Rayner agreed in the comments section of Lloyd's post, the fact that "food miles" are over emphasized is no reason to abandon the notion of local food. Instead, we need to focus on a broader understanding of what a sustainable food system might look like.

Here are some of the pieces of that puzzle.

farmers marketLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Transparency is key

If there's one thing that the horse meat scandal in Europe has taught us, it's that the longer, more elaborate, and more industrial the food chain becomes, the harder it is to know what the heck we are eating. By contrast, when we form direct relationships with producers and/or we encourage shops and restaurants to do the same, both locally and in terms of international trade (Fair Trade and direct trade being prime examples), we build a community of common interest which looks out for abuses, rewards best practice, and takes pride in producing real, quality food.

Rooftop farm brooklyn photoFoodForward TV/Video screen capture

Production matters more than transport

Funny things happen when you look at one metric alone—like transportation and distance to market. I can easily buy "local" pork here in North Carolina that happens to come from some of the most brutal, industrialized factory farm operations around. Likewise, a supermarket may boast about a "regional" product that came from 250 miles away and was grown in a heated greenhouse—in which case a field grown tomato from the other side of the country may well win out in a carbon footprint analysis. As Jay Rayner also suggested in his comment to Lloyd's piece, a true approach to localism and sustainability must include encouraging sustainable farming methods, whether it's care of the soil and no-till farming, use and production of renewable energy, or moving away from monocultures. Again, the advantage of a localized food system is that it becomes easy to see what farmers are doing, and it becomes easy for farmers to understand that their customers appreciate it.

Seasonality should be celebrated, not enforced

There are many good environmental reasons to eat seasonal. Generally speaking, it means fewer inputs as crops do not require heat and/or shade, excessive irrigation or shipping from the other side of the world. But let's not get all eco-nag about this. Seasonal eating is also fun and should be celebrated. From trendy seasonal restaurants to the joys of wild asparagus, incorporating seasonality into our food culture is a means to encourage diversity, celebration and a connection with the world around us. Most of us get bored eating the same thing every day. Why not let Mother Nature nudge you out of your comfort zone? And the easiest way to do it, of course, is to buy from the farms around you and to learn what they grow when.

Greener transportation is still crucial

Unless and until the darker predictions around peak oil and climate change actually do bring about a collapse of our Global system (not an inconceivable possibility), international trade will remain a part of our food system. And that's not all bad. From Palestinian Fair Trade olive oil to supporting shade grown coffee, responsible trade can be a means to alleviate poverty and create important international and intercultural connections. But if that trade is going to continue, it's going to need to rapidly reduce the carbon footprint of transportation to remain viable. The reintroduction of wind-powered shipping might just be one way to do that, with high-tech sail power offering reliable, modern shipping without the emissions. The slow freight movement is offering a slightly more retro means to achieving the same goal.

Community-centered economics

If the economic crisis has taught us one thing, it's that we can't assume that markets look out for our interests unless we explicitly shape them to do so. Shopping locally is one way to do that. By spending money with people in our community, we build relationships. We increase the likelihood that this money will keep circulating, providing more opportunities for our neighbors to build livelihoods that actually deliver benefits to the community around them. And we avoid a situation where wealth gets concentrated in centralized, faceless institutions that we have no control over. It's just one part of what some people call plenitude economics, where we focus on what the economy can do for us—not what we can do for the economy.

Critics of food miles are right to point out that they are an over simplification. Ultimately, the impact of local food is not defined by food miles, but by the changing relationship we have with our food and the people who grow, process, transport and sell it. To shape those relationships effectively, we have to come up with both quantitive and qualitative metrics that truly reflect the world we want to create.

Food miles are a distraction. Local food is not.
Food miles are a simple concept to get. But for truly sustainable food, we must engage with the details.

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