Recently I spent several hours discussing environmental issues with an honors class at MSU. One of the points I emphasized was the importance of thinking beyond slogans. When seeking to craft effective environmental policies, good intentions are simply not enough. I left the class with a handout that included this quote from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Twain’s quip comes to mind when considering the “food miles” movement. The movement argues (among other things) that locally produced foods are environmentally superior because they consume less energy as they travel from farm to table. Since modern agricultural production and transport use a lot of energy, food miles are said to be a simple surrogate for gauging environmental impact, especially carbon emissions. But are they?
A piece from Reason reports that: “In the United States, a 2007 analysis found that transporting food from producers to retailers accounted for only 4 percent of greenhouse emissions related to food. According to a 2000 study, agriculture was responsible for 7.7 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In that study, food transport accounted for 14 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, which means that food transport is responsible for about 1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
“Other researchers have determined that Kenyan cut rose growers emit 6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per 12,000 roses compared to the 35 tons of carbon dioxide emitted by their Dutch competitors. Kenyan roses grow in sunny fields whereas Dutch roses grow in heated greenhouses.”
Some have called for a boycott of agricultural products transported by air. Claire Melamed of ActionAid notes the unintended consequences of taking this action. “Developing countries stand to lose billions from our new-found concern for the planet. In Africa alone more than one million people depend on selling fruit and vegetables to British shoppers. Cutting African farmers off from international trade will cause devastation which far outweighs the tiny reduction in the UK's carbon emissions."
The activists promoting this campaign fail to understand that because prices reflect real costs, the market does a pretty good job of sorting this stuff out. It turns out that food grown where it makes the most economic sense is often also the most environmentally benign. If fuel prices rise high enough, then local agriculture would surely expand to reflect transportation costs.
Those truly concerned about the plight of poor farmers and the environmental impacts of agriculture should campaign to end the environmentally and socially damaging agricultural trade policies of developed nations. This egregious corporate welfare disadvantages and often devastates third world farmers.
The food miles movement is rooted in a romantic notion of subsistence farming. This was popularized by E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful. Schumacher praises peasant societies for having less “pressure and strain of living” than developed countries. He sharply criticizes modern transportation and communications for making people “footloose.”
There is no question that along with the benefits our modern food production and distribution system provide, we’ve lost much of the intimacy associated with food. (Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma chronicles some of the changes.) This explains the great demand for Hutterite turkeys and the success of Bozeman’s Community Food Co-Op.
But all modern societies are characterized by a demographic transition away from agriculture. As agriculture production becomes more efficient, farms consolidate and people move to urban areas. Once liberated from farm work, they develop other skills that help raise living standards, a process now underway in China.
You, of course, can choose to eat foods that are in season, use public transportation to go grocery shopping, and grow much of your own food. However, you will trade-off other productive or leisure activities to spend more time growing and preparing your own food. But when considering solutions, please don’t be seduced by slogans. Basing your decisions on “Food Miles” avoids wrestling with the very real and serious issues of energy consumption, global development, and the environmental impacts of agriculture.