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Miles to table

(article, Kim Carlson)

In a recent Feed column, New York Times business writer Andrew Martin summed up the recent local-food movement and mused upon a new study out of the University of California, Davis, about food miles and carbon footprints.

Online reaction to Martin's column has ranged from perplexed to bored. The Davis study concludes that some foods shipped in bulk by barge or train from faraway places may actually have a smaller carbon footprint (or "foodprint") than foods grown locally and transported inefficiently (i.e., an old pickup going to the farmers' market). 

This topic, if not this particular study, isn't new; Peter Singer and Jim Mason have advocated eating based on carbon footprints, and the New York Times itself has written about earlier studies of long-distance eating.

Our take on it all? We say, don't get too comfortable with any one way of thinking about food. We've eaten on autopilot, by and large, for far too long, and look where our trust in the industrial food system has gotten us. We need people to ask themselves not just why they choose local foods, but why they choose any food. 

Is it for fewer greenhouse-gas emissions, or is it for flavor? Is it because they like to know the sources of their food, because they appreciate seeing a farm in their vicinity rather than another Wal-Mart, or because they just want to support their local farmers? 

Or is cost alone the biggest factor? (Cost wasn't discussed in Martin's piece.) And if it is, how can we as a society ensure that everybody can afford to choose between, for example, local produce instead of fruit-flavored drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup?

Besides, as you — as we all — grapple with food questions, we're also asking other questions about the world we live in. We say, ask away.