Do Food Miles Matter?

My brain has been making frequent stops on the subject of Food Miles for the past ten weeks now. Imagine the action of crawling along in rush hour traffic, stopping, starting, stopping, starting again, never coming to a full standstill and never yet quite realizing the speed limit, and yeah, that is pretty much how my thoughts on this subject have been tossing around in my head, not quite leaving me yet not fully articulating, either.

I am generally a proponent of eating fresh and eating local. I believe in supporting my local economy, preserving farmland and green spaces, and I just feel a connection to my community when I shop at farm stores and farmers markets that I do not experience at the regular grocery store.  I also very much prefer having fresh produce because my mom was an amazing gardener and that is how I learned to eat. These are only a few good reasons to shop locally, I am sure there are many more.

I am also concerned, however, with being a good steward of the environment and lowering my carbon footprint, which is why I choose to do things like recycle, take public transit and Zipcar instead of owning a car, use compact fluorescent bulbs, and avoid bottled water. At least superficially, it seems like buying locally-sourced food should be the only obvious choice. Fewer transportation miles mean a smaller carbon footprint, right? Right! Well, maybe not.

We all know that planes, trains, and ships all create greenhouse gases in varying amounts. But transportation is just one part of the food lifecycle.* Researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand conducted a study to include other “energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call ‘factor inputs and externalities’ — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.”**

What they found was interesting. Lamb in New Zealand was pasture-raised, traveled 11,000 miles by ship to Britain and produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, while Britain-raised lamb was conventionally grown and more reliant on feed and produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton. Thus, it was far more efficient for Britain to import lamb from New Zealand, partly due to a difference in the quality of pastures. Similar results were found with fruit and dairy products.***

This is what has been rolling around in my head for a while now: there is a bigger picture to see, and I need to keep my eyes open to it. My conclusion? Food miles alone just don’t matter that much. Don’t get me wrong, I still advocate for buying and eating locally-sourced food and products; I love my farmers markets.  Be an educated consumer. Consider your options. Ask questions. Do your research. And of course, support your local farmers and develop relationships with sustainable growers. 

 * Please see my classmate’s blog titled “Food’s Lifecycle” for a more in-depth look at other parts of the food lifecycle. 

** McWilliams, James E. (August 6, 2007). Food That Travels Well. The New York Times.

*** Interested in the Lincoln University study's gritty details? Read the full research report