business news in context, analysis with attitude

There was an interesting piece on the wires over the weekend from Reuters that looked at whether “food miles - the distance edibles travel from farm to plate - give an accurate gauge of environmental impact, especially where greenhouse gas emissions are concerned.” And while food miles have become part of the “local food” movement in the US, which is gaining strength among consumers to the point where it is flirting with mainstream status, at least one expert says that they are not an accurate way to evaluate economic impact.

"Food-miles are a great metaphor for looking at the localness of food, the contrast between local and global food, a way people can get an idea of where their food is coming from," Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, tells Reuters. But, he says, it is important to take a broader, more contextual look at the entire food supply chain.

One example cited by Reuters: “The problem with food-miles is that they don't take into account the mode of transport, methods of production or the way things are packaged, and all of these have their own distinct impact on emissions of carbon dioxide, a climate-warming gas.

“Take the case of the well-traveled Idaho potato and its closer-to-home cousin from Maine. For a consumer on the U.S. East Coast, the Maine potato seems the winner in the local food derby.

“But Maine potatoes get to market by long-haul truck while Idahos go by train, a more energy-efficient mode of transportation, so they have a smaller carbon footprint even with a larger number of food-miles.”

Another problem with food miles as an environmental barometer is that “the most accurate versions of this calculation deal only with produce, not with prepared foods that contain many ingredients from many sources.”
KC's View:
It’s an interesting construct, but while food miles may not be the most accurate measurement of environmental impact, it is important for the industry to realize that one of the reasons consumers embrace it as an idea is that it is something they can do themselves. It is sort of like canvas bags – people who use them do so it part because it is a place where they feel they can have an impact, where one person’s actions can make a difference.

It seems to me that it is critical to both educate consumers about the realities of environmentalism while being careful not to disabuse them of their desires to do the right thing. In this case, eating local can have an impact beyond simple carbon footprints. It can keep local farmers and producers in business, it can lead to tastier foods, and it can actually develop consumers’ interest in regional cuisines in a way that could diminish their desire to buy lowest-common-denominator fast foods.

All of which works for me.