Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How Long is a "Food Mile"

In every story I read about food issues in Britain, I see references to "food miles." By this, the authors mean the distance that an item of food travels from where it's grown to where it's eaten. In the articles about Whole Foods in London I saw several mentions of this as a question about the bona-fides of Whole Foods. (American commentators on Whole Foods have thoroughly explored this and most other questions, I'd say.)

The local food movement in the US, which I've thought about and blogged about, has a somewhat different approach. The local-eating proponents are less concerned about a formula for ecological responsibility and in many ways more fixated on whether the food has been traveling too long to still taste good. Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle had a more nuanced view, for example (my brief comment: Barbara Kingsolver: "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle").

I have been skeptical about the claims that writers seem to be making regarding food miles as a measure of social responsiblity in eating. Today I've finally found a commentary that summarizes my concerns. It's of course much better and more comprehensive than what I have come up with:
Local food must be more environmentally friendly, they say – the distance it travels from farm to fork is shorter so its carbon footprint is smaller. Right? Wrong. Local food, per se, is not necessarily more environmentally friendly than that produced overseas. There is no reason, per se, that food produced in Kent has a lower environmental footprint than food produced in Kenya.

The concept of food miles remains easy for consumers to grasp but, in practice, it is too simplistic and we lose sight of a raft of wider sustainability issues. How does, for instance, the issue of Fair Trade fit into a concept of food miles?

And how can the food industry effectively communicate those issues on sustainability to consumers in a way they are willing and able to understand?

And just how “turned on” to environmental issues are consumers anyway? It would be na├»ve to assume that price and convenience are no longer the two key drivers in food consumption.
-- See the blog Just Food: permalink url

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