Food Miles

At Fruit Logistica in Berlin, one of the hot topics was “food miles,” a concept built around measuring the distance foods travel to get to market, the idea being that foods traveling shorter distances leave less of a “carbon footprint” and are, in general, kinder to the environment.

Although these issues are hot in Europe, they are inching slowly into America. Some of it is as a result of export to Europe or European companies opening divisions in the United States.

Tesco, the British giant, has already asked suppliers to submit data to be used in establishing their carbon footprint when exporting produce to the United Kingdom. Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, both U.K. chains, will soon request the same information. The issues are also bubbling domestically. Wal-Mart, for example, has a sustainability initiative of which food miles are a part.

Although it makes sense to think a locally grown product places less strain on the environment than product shipped from a great distance, things don’t always work out that way.

The term food mile is rather silly. A tractor-trailer mile requires dividing the environmental cost among thousands of pounds of product. A consumer going to a farmer’s market carrying nothing and going home with five items is likely to place a much heavier burden on the environment. A British government study discovered that over half the food-vehicle miles, the actual miles traveled by any vehicle carrying food, were in cars going back and forth to market.

The free market is pretty good at sorting out the environmental impact because energy costs money; if a type of production or transport is inefficient, it will also often be uncompetitive.

Should a resident of New Jersey buy tomatoes grown in New Jersey or in Florida in February? Weather dictates this isn’t the choice. The choice is more likely between tomatoes grown outdoors in Florida and in a greenhouse in New Jersey. With comparisons like this, it is easy to see how food miles are a simplistic concept that tells us little or nothing about the environmental impact of our purchases.

Things get more complicated since many exporting countries are developing countries. The decision to produce locally may deprive poor Africans of a livelihood. Those same poor Africans, deprived of money, may clear-cut forests, burn animal dung and do other environmental harm. Even if all that mattered were the environment, it is not obvious food miles tell us anything at all.

Of course, the environment is not the only value. The spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 crisis has placed the focus on food safety. And that has drawn attention to supply-chain issues dealing with how we can provide effective food safety protections to trade buyers and consumers.

Every sign points to a shrinking base of vendors because growers, packers, and shippers will need to consolidate in order to be able to allocate large expenses incurred meeting new mandatory food-safety procedures over larger volumes.

The food mile sustainable agriculture model — small, local, probably organic, sustainable agriculture — is the antithesis of the food-safety model. There is a polar difference between large, centralized agribusiness enterprises and growers embracing green practices.

In some ways the difference is ideological. Food miles advocates would probably reject buying tomatoes trucked in from Florida and those grown in a greenhouse in New Jersey. They would say we should eat tomatoes only when they are local and in-season. Yet there is no indication the general population is adopting this ethos.

The truth is the whole discussion overlooks the fact that the capitalist system is really the best mechanism we have for determining the relative value of different approaches.

No individual can have as much information as can everyone. Hundreds, thousands or millions of people make small decisions on which they are expert. Someone decides to develop varieties suitable for a region in Chile, another to irrigate a farm in that region, another to work on the farm, another to launch charter boat service. Add about a thousand steps and Chilean grapes are being served on your table.

When consumers are encouraged to “vote their dollars” by selecting things with minimal food miles, they are being urged to short-circuit the thousands of decisions made to bring the product to the dinner plate most economically.

Economy is not the only value, especially in rich countries such as ours, so it makes sense to elect to purchase a more expensive product to obtain some other goal. But there is so little information in the food miles concept that one runs the risk of spending money and not only not achieving the professed environmental goal but also actually doing harm to the environment.

Even if someone, somehow, knew the relative environmental impact of a peach grown in Chile, New Zealand, and South Africa, how does one weigh that impact against the other causes one might like, say, contributing to ending child labor or getting AIDS medicine for those suffering?

The effects of these purchases are not merely unknown but, in a practical sense, also unknowable.

So what food miles are really about is selling consumers not a benefit for the environment but the good feelings that come from acting in ways they’ve been told are virtuous. So to make ourselves feel virtuous, we may wind up doing harm.