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Energy is constant

(article, Kim Carlson & Stephanie Beechem)

At Culinate, we write frequently about the benefits of eating locally. Twilight Greenaway’s article on locavores — people who eat food produced and sourced locally — cites better taste and more connection with the community as reasons to eat food produced close to home. Eating locally, one locavore in the article declares, made food into a whole “circle of meaning” rather than just a blind trip to a supermarket. 

Columnist Deborah Madison writes that "local and organic" is the only way to eat if you want food that’s fresh, tastes great, and “didn’t travel 1,500 miles (or more).” Debra Gwartney’s review of two books about eating regionally discusses two households that attempt to “close the gap” between farmer and consumer by growing their own food on family farms.

All of these articles have roots, in one way or another, in the now-familiar concept of “food miles” — the distance that food travels between farm and plate, and the amount of carbon and greenhouse gases released during that transport. While eating locally provides better taste, freshness, and ties to the community, it’s also about reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. 

A recent New York Times editorial written by James McWilliams underscores the complexity of the food-miles concept. While McWilliams allows that eating locally can provide greater freshness, taste, and ties to community than air-freighted foods, he also points out that there are other hidden energy costs behind producing food that have nothing to do with transport.

[%image feed-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/jcarroll-images" caption="New Zealand or British lamb?"]

One example he raises is the now (in)famous lamb study. At Lincoln University in New Zealand researchers found that it was more energy-efficient for customers in the U.K. to buy lamb raised in New Zealand (1,520 total carbon emissions per ton) rather than lamb raised in Britain, where a lamb translates to 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton. This study takes into account often-overlooked production factors — water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer use, renewable energy applications, types of transportation and fuel, disposal of packaging, storage, and other inputs — in determining more accurate emission measurements. All in all, the study concluded, even with 11,000 miles of transportation included, Brits who eat New Zealand lamb are making the most efficient choice.

Fortunately, on Grist Tom Philpott takes the discussion one step further. Philpott addresses the New York Times_ piece and the New Zealand study (which he says doesn't take into account pastured lambs in Britain, surely a wise option for British lamb-eaters) in a typically thoughtful piece called "The eat-local backlash: If buying locally isn't the answer, then what is?":

bq. What often arises in the food-miles debate, I think, is a false dichotomy: local vs. long distance. But the most attractive model might be a regional one. 

What does this regional food transportation system look like? Philpott proposes reinvestment in a regional rail system that transports our food, and does it much more efficiently than trucks:

bq. \[We must\] reject the temptation to transport food up and down the mountains in diesel-guzzling, highway-hogging 18-wheelers. Rather, as Rich Pirog of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture recently told me, "If we want regional food systems to be energy-efficient, we have to reinvest in rail infrastructure." 

bq. Pirog, who probably counts as the nation's most rigorous analyst of food-miles, told me that as recently as 1980, trains accounted for fully half of food transport in the United States. By 1997, following a period of low petroleum prices and steady decay of rail systems, just 13 percent of food traveled on trains. Trucks hauled the other 87 percent.

bq. Thus rebuilding regional food networks . . . requires something that critics of the eat-local movement rarely advocate: reinvestment in food-production and distribution infrastructure designed for something beyond maximizing agribusiness profit.

bq. Such a regional conception requires not a rejection of the eat-local ethic, but rather a broadening of it.

Changing the food-transport system within our country doesn't directly address shipping via sea, of course, but it's part of a broader discussion of how we procure and transport food — and it seems more relevant than ever.

To join the conversation, head over to Grist, where Philpott has furthered the discussion by questioning where that oft-cited figure of our food taking 1,200 (or 1,500) miles to reach us comes from — and by the way, how accurate is it really? He concludes that fresh food travels between 1,500 and 2,000 miles, while processed food travels 1,346 miles on average. And that's not counting how far the ingredients of the processed food traveled in the first place.

Meanwhile, on his blog, Culinate columnist Matthew Amster-Burton has taken up the question of food miles as well. Offering a note of caution against what he calls food provincialism, he writes, "Perhaps we will be forced back to local economies by an oil crisis. I hope not. In the present, however, I think we should all continue to eat chocolate."

Also on Culinate: An article about local-food challenges.


feed-image, l