Global Warming

The Food Miles Mistake

Saving the planet by eating New Zealand apples

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I stopped by my favorite boutique grocery store to pick up a red onion today. The young clerk running the cash register wore a t-shirt with the slogan "Eat Local." Oddly, the shop's shelves and coolers were stuffed with cheeses, sausages, olives, jams, cookies, and crackers from California, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, and many other exotic locales. As I walked home, I mused over the fact that I needed the onion to go with the organic Irish salmon and the Spanish capers my wife and I were having for dinner. The salmon was a gift from a visiting friend from Dublin. Now, I enjoy seeking out and eating locally produced foods. My wife and I make it a habit to shop at our town's weekly farmers market for fresh fruits and vegetables.

But for some activists, eating local foods is no longer just a pleasure—it is a moral obligation. Why? Because locally produced foods are supposed to be better for the planet than foods shipped thousands of miles across oceans and continents. According to these activists, shipping foods over long distances results in the unnecessary emission of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. This concern has given rise to the concept of "food miles," that is, the distance food travels from farm to plate. Activists particularly dislike air freighting foods because it uses relatively more energy than other forms of transportation. Food miles are supposed to be a simple way to gauge food's impact on climate change.

In their recent policy primer for the Mercatus Center at George University, however, economic geographer Pierre Desrochers and economic consultant Hiroko Shimizu challenge the notion that food miles are a good sustainability indicator. As Desrochers and Shimizu point out, the food trade has been historically driven by urbanization. As agriculture became more efficient, people were liberated from farms and able to develop other skills that helped raise general living standards. People freed from having to scrabble for food, for instance, could work in factories, write software, or become physicians. Modernization is a process in which people get further and further away from the farm.

Modern technologies like canning and refrigeration made it possible to extend the food trade from staple grains and spices to fruits, vegetables, and meats. As a result, world trade in fruits and vegetables—fresh and processed—doubled in the 1980s and increased by 30 percent between 1990 and 2001. Fruits and vegetables accounted for 22 percent of the exports of developing economies in 2001. If farmers, processors, shippers, and retailers did not profit from providing distant consumers with these foods, the foods wouldn't be on store shelves. And consumers, of course, benefit from being able to buy fresh foods year around.

So just how much carbon dioxide is emitted by transporting food from farm to fork? Desrochers and Shimizu cite a comprehensive study done by the United Kingdom's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which reported that 82 percent of food miles were generated within the U.K. Consumer shopping trips accounted for 48 percent and trucking for 31 percent of British food miles. Air freight amounted to less than 1 percent of food miles. In total, food transportation accounted for only 1.8 percent of Britain's carbon dioxide emissions.

In the United States, a 2007 analysis found that transporting food from producers to retailers accounted for only 4 percent of greenhouse emissions related to food. According to a 2000 study, agriculture was responsible for 7.7 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In that study, food transport accounted for 14 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, which means that food transport is responsible for about 1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Food miles advocates fail to grasp the simple idea that food should be grown where it is most economically advantageous to do so. Relevant advantages consist of various combinations of soil, climate, labor, capital, and other factors. It is possible to grow bananas in Iceland, but Costa Rica really has the better climate for that activity. Transporting food is just one relatively small cost of providing modern consumers with their daily bread, meat, cheese, and veggies. Desrochers and Shimizu argue that concentrating agricultural production in the most favorable regions is the best way to minimize human impacts on the environment.

Local food production does not always produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the 2005 DEFRA study found that British tomato growers emit 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of tomatoes grown compared to 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of Spanish tomatoes. The difference is British tomatoes are produced in heated greenhouses. Another study found that cold storage of British apples produced more carbon dioxide than shipping New Zealand apples by sea to London. In addition, U.K. dairy farmers use twice as much energy to produce a metric ton of milk solids than do New Zealand farmers. Other researchers have determined that Kenyan cut rose growers emit 6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per 12,000 roses compared to the 35 tons of carbon dioxide emitted by their Dutch competitors. Kenyan roses grow in sunny fields whereas Dutch roses grow in heated greenhouses.

Nevertheless, organic food activists in Britain's Soil Association argued for lifting the organic certification from Kenyan food exports because they are brought into Britain on airplanes. Some high-end British retailers have begun slapping a label featuring an airplane on various food products to indicate that they have been air freighted. Kenyan growers cannily responded by launching their own "Grown Under the Sun" label, pointing out that their agricultural production methods emit far less greenhouse gases than many crops grown in Britain do.

A die-hard response to the above studies would be: Don't eat either British or Spanish tomatoes out of season; don't cold store apples, dry them in the sun instead; don't ever eat dairy products; and give your true love a bouquet of in-season root vegetables for Valentine's Day. In order to reduce your food miles, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service makes these recommendations: Eat foods that are in season; eat minimally processed, packaged, and marketed food; use public transportation when grocery shopping; can and dry fruits and vegetables yourself; and plant a garden and grow as much of your own food as possible. In other words, spend more time and effort finding, growing, and preparing food at the expense of other productive or leisure activities.

Desrochers and Shimizu demonstrate that the debate over food miles is a distraction from the real issues that confront global food production. For instance, rich country subsidies amounting to more than $300 billion per year are severely distorting global agricultural production and trade. If the subsidies were removed, far more agricultural goods would be produced in and imported from developing countries, helping lift millions of people out of poverty. They warn that the food miles campaign is "providing a new set of rhetorical tools to bolster protectionist interests that are fundamentally detrimental to most of humankind." Ultimately, Desrochers and Shimizu's analysis shows that "the concept of food miles is…a profoundly flawed sustainability indicator."

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. “A die-hard response to the above studies would be: Don’t eat either British or Spanish tomatoes out of season; don’t cold store apples, dry them in the sun instead; don’t ever eat dairy products; and give your true love a bouquet of in-season root vegetables for Valentine’s Day. In order to reduce your food miles, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service makes these recommendations: Eat foods that are in season; eat minimally processed, packaged, and marketed food; use public transportation when grocery shopping; can and dry fruits and vegetables yourself; and plant a garden and grow as much of your own food as possible. In other words, spend more time and effort finding, growing, and preparing food at the expense of other productive or leisure activities.”

    How are these people any less crazy than the worst of the worst snake handling fundementalist on the right? Moreover, the snake handlers are small in numbers and live in hills and generally don’t bother anyone. These clowns number in the millions, hold important jobs, and claim to be mainstream. God help us all. Can a new dark ages be far off?

  2. God Cthulhu help us all.

    Can a new dark ages be far off?

    Not if I have anything to do with it, Cthulhu willing…

  3. What’s great about stores like Ron’s favorite is they even exist in cities like mine, the unfortunately true blue but global consuming Akron, Ohio.

  4. My wife and I make it a habit to shop at our town’s weekly farmers market for fresh fruits and vegetables.

    But for some activists, eating local foods is no longer just a pleasure-it is a moral obligation.

    Absent moral considerations, what makes eating local foods more pleasurable than the alternative?

  5. My wife and I make it a habit to shop at our town’s weekly farmers market for fresh fruits and vegetables.

    Not to easy to do if you live in Fargo and it’s January.

  6. Absent moral considerations, what makes eating local foods more pleasurable than the alternative?

    Have you seen our cucumbers? and don’t get me started on the butternut squash!

  7. Absent moral considerations, what makes eating local foods more pleasurable than the alternative?

    It’s tribal I think. Keep the money in the city/county/state instead of sending to the jackasses in the San Joaquin Valley.

    I’m hardly a fanatic about it, but some things grown in Michigan (your state too) are the best there is. Wherever you live, your cherries suck compared to ours.

  8. > Absent moral considerations, what makes eating
    > local foods more pleasurable than the alternative?

    I’ll take a stab at this one with some of the joys of farmers markets:

    1) You can often talk to the person who grew the produce or raised the animals and get some tips on the best preparation.

    2) You get access to heirloom varieties that are not economically viable to raise on large farms or ship properly. Particularly with tomatoes, you get them a day after they were picked–and when ripe–rather than picked green and ripened over a week of transit. That’s why supermarkets are full of those hard pink flavorless tomatoes: they’re easy to grow and ship well.

    3) There are surprises that you don’t often see in grocery stores: chestnuts, unusual apples, accidental hybrid squash, honey from bees that have been feasting on mimosa blossoms, etc.

    4) You get to understand how amazing fruits and vegetables can taste when picked at the right time, handled carefully, and eaten in season. Look at asparagus at different times of the year, or green beans.

    There are downsides to eating local, which is why I’m far from a purist about it.

    1) Most folks in the US are unwilling to give up on tea, coffee, chocolate, and most spices.

    2) The pickings at farmers markets can be terrible at the beginning and end of the seasons.

    3) You may live in an agriculturally boring part of the country that grows nothing but potatoes and broccoli.

    4) As a wine lover, I’m not going to drink Tennessee wines all the time.

  9. honey from bees that have been feasting on mimosa blossoms,

    4) As a wine lover, I’m not going to drink Tennessee wines all the time.

    Learn to make mead.

  10. The trouble is, until carbon emissions and other environmental externalities are taxed and factored into the prices consumers pay they won’t know the true costs of what they buy. On top of that, all produce loses nutritional value from the moment it’s harvested. You may be getting less of what you’re paying for compared to local alternatives.

  11. “For some activists, eating local foods is no longer just a pleasure-it is a moral obligation. Why?”

    Why?

    Because it’s just another way for them to show off their “moral superiority” and feed their own ego at the same time they’re feeding their face.

    It’s the food equivalent to driving a Prius.

  12. Well, I don’t know anything about “food miles.” But I buy local food when I can, because I have to live with these people.

    Of course I live way out in the sticks. Your mileage may, and probably does, vary.

  13. I hereby posit that all whacked out ideas can be traced to people taking a movie that they saw in their youth far, far too seriously. The movie in this case is Mr. Majestyk. Yes, that was about local melons, but one can extrapolate from melons other produce without losing the central message of the film: Buy melons [or other produce] from Mr. Majestyk, or he’ll shoot you.

  14. Localvorism: just another form of 21st century masturbation.

  15. Let me add that the only difference between localvores is that when I masturbate, I’m not being a total fucking ignorant parochial hypocrite.

  16. If the subsidies were removed, far more agricultural goods would be produced in and imported from developing countries, helping lift millions of people out of poverty.

    Not to mention that perhaps I might be able to purchase Coke made with cane sugar in this country.

    Also, is it coincidence that the two economists mentioned are descended of two of the most gastronomically intense countries (France and Japan)?

  17. I’d vote Communist if it meant that Coke with sugar would return.

    Coca-Cola is a terrible drug.

  18. Dear Pro. Lib:

    They still make it with sugar in Mexico. I showed up at the 99 cents store at the right time. They were selling large glass bottled coke, made with sugar for 57 cents a bottle! The guy stocking the shelves said it would all be gone in a few hours.

    Also, at Passover, Coca Cola makes kosher coke; sugar is kosher and corn syrup is not; there is some sort of yellow thing on the cap of the bottle that tells you it is kosher. They have it at most of the Jewish markets during passover only. I’m anti-zionist except for that.

  19. “Absent moral considerations, what makes eating local foods more pleasurable than the alternative?”

    It has more to do with quality than anything. I can drive down to a farm and pick up grass bred beef which tastes fantastic. And it supports a local farmer. I don’t do it to save the planet. Of course I can pick up this type of beef a number of different places but it is generally more expensive to have it shipped in.

  20. I agree with Ronald that the transportation and localization issue is overhyped. As usual, I’d like to add that the issue of what and how food is grown (or “produced”) is underhyped.

  21. “Food miles advocates fail to grasp the simple idea that food should be grown where it is most economically advantageous to do so.”

    Internalize environmental costs through property rights, get rid of public roads, eliminate subsidized infrastructure and development and zoning laws. Then I think you find that the “most economically advantageous” place to grow food would be much closer to its eaters then prevails today.

    Lesson: Don’t confuse statist market conditions with a “free market.”

  22. Internalize environmental costs through property rights, get rid of public roads, eliminate subsidized infrastructure and development and zoning laws. Then I think you find that the “most economically advantageous” place to grow food would be much closer to its eaters then prevails today.

    You are correct that interalizing costs would be necessary to determine the true costs. But either way, local foods won’t win. Economies of scale dwarf transportation costs in most instances.

    I would love to hear your schemes to privatize the atmosphere, oceans, rivers and roads, btw.

  23. I like to eat stuff that is produced locally because it generally tastes better, but moving towards a system that is entirely based on “local foods” is crazy. What can you grow in North Dakota in the middle of the winter?

    And where are you supposed to get your salt? This one item has driven the development of transportation routes since people settled down in one place.

    It is a fad, best left to the faddists, who will continue to be able to exercise their quirky behavior on the backs of those of us who do not.

  24. The article “Europe’s Banana Republic” has no basis in fact. The bananas consumed in Iceland are imported.
    Various vegetables are grown in greenhouses at great cost and are competitive only because of very high import tariffs.

  25. A minor correction, most Spanish tomatoes are produced in greenhouses especially in the Plastic Sea of Almeria (The white areas are greenhouses). The difference is that since Almeria is so hot they don’t need any heating (and even then the greenhouses are infernally hot) Also they have several harvests a year (the taste goes from bland to good, depending of the price)

  26. …give your true love a bouquet of in-season root vegetables for Valentine’s Day.

    Does FTD deliver root vegetables? I suppose it would be even more environmentally friendly to make a bouquet of dead leaves and sticks in February. Might not be so good for the in-home environment though.

  27. By stating their own ideas, whether flawed or not, nobody is interfering with your choices. So buy what you want, eat what you want, and quite whining about other people’s delusions, I am sure you have your own.

  28. 3) You may live in an agriculturally boring part of the country that grows nothing but potatoes and broccoli.

    In my case the two main local crops are whitetail deer and feral hogs, which tends to piss off the tree-huggers even more.

    By stating their own ideas, whether flawed or not, nobody is interfering with your choices.

    If they state their ideas to Congress and get more laws passed regulating food production and shipping, they interfere the hell out of my choices.

  29. Agriculture is simply a value for value exchange of carbon energy, and how could it be anything else? The carbon footprint is embodied in the price of the apple(commodity). The higher the P the more carbon. Localism and Food Miles are environmental absurdity.

  30. National Post just posted “Food mile myths: Buy global”, by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. Click the header link.

  31. Comments such as “dead leaves and sticks in February” only prove the ignorance and lack of experience you have with local food. Only in truly extreme environments would there not be good, local food available year round. Look at Elliot Coleman’s books on year round growing in Maine.

  32. Good lord. Food-miles are not intended by anyone to be the ultimate measure of agricultural good- they are just one additional measure of providing a little transparency into a complex food production system that often conceals the total costs of production from consumers. Depicting the idea that thinking about eating local, region-appropriate and seasonal food might taste better and be a little easier on the environment as some kind of radical rebellion against the evident benefits of modern agriculture is just silly. Are there really people who think that not providing consumers with information about where and how their food was produced is beneficial to the market, the environment, or the consumer?

  33. So, this is all well and good. Except for the last comment:

    If the subsidies were removed, far more agricultural goods would be produced in and imported from developing countries, helping lift millions of people out of poverty.

    I’m glad the word “helping” is in there to emphasize it won’t fix everything, but this fails to realize one of the reasons that buying local may be preferable. Most of the overseas growers who we do get produce from are just as globalized as in the US, meaning workers almost certainly aren’t getting what they need to live.

    Of course, people seem to be less of a moral concern these days than polar bears and penguins, so perhaps my comments will be unwelcome. While we’re worrying about every cubic centimeter of CO2 output, let’s not forget that the trade agreements that allow us to get these products are not protecting human life in other countries. We need to change that.

    Yes, changing subsidies may help, but the same grower giants will be the ones who profit from this change for the most part- unless forced, they will not pass their profits on to the farm. Interesting reality: we keep subsidies, the Ag giants win. We get rid of subsidies, the Ag giants win again-possibly even more.

    Buy from people you know who treat their workers well, and do hire people who need jobs. If that’s on the other side of the world and it’s not going to take a huge amount of energy to get the apples here, fine by me.

  34. I think that food-mile freaks (of which I am on the fringes) miss the original point: it only works when farmers give up the monoculture that is truly environmentally damaging. Of course I buy tomatoes in December. But I buy more in August.

    Avoiding packaged foods and eating more seasonally and locally will cut emissions to a degree, but, yes, as mentioned above, I buy Michigan cherries whenever I can get my mitts on them.

    Oh, and kill the stupid subsidies. They’re not helping anyone. No one’s mentioned Michael Pollan, who started this whole debate, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma is actually quite good, and many Reason readers would agree with much of it.

  35. Fads (in terms of what’s politically correct and considered socially laudable) will come and go, and living a life by their lights would be foolish. But buying local has advantages in terms of taste, nutrition, and (if you focus on in-season items) price. It also supports a local economy, which contributes to local community, and can be a blessing in areas suffering local depression.
    Of course growing lots of things in hothouses is not the point of local agriculture. The point is to enjoy food at its best. Even people living in Michigan can get better food for less money by focusing on foods that are in-season (e.g. squash and apples in the fall). I appreciate shipping because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to eat fresh spinach in the late winter, but I can get local root vegetables (which make a great winter soup) into December.

  36. As several respondents have already noted, environmental activism is not the primary reason that the local foods movement has been growing. It’s been growing because people enjoy meeting people who grow their food, they want to support their local economy and they feel like they’re getting a fresher product and often a better deal when they buy local. Consider the statistics. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, there were about 1,600 farmers markets in the U.S. in 1994. In 2006, there were 4,385, and in 2008, there were almost 4,700. Similarly, localharvest.org currently lists about 9,000 small U.S. farms that sell direct to the public. By contrast, the “localvore” concept–limiting yourself to a diet of food grown or raised within 100 to 200 miles of your residence–is only about 3 years old. There’s no way that hard core food activism is the primary driver behind this trend.

    Also, the vast majority of crop subsidies given away by the U.S. government go to row crop farmers–really, really large farmers and corporate farms that grow things like corn, wheat and soybeans. In fact, fruits and vegetables are still referred to as “specialty crops” in U.S. Farm Bill legislation. Fruit and vegetable growers, particularly small fruit and vegetable growers, aren’t benefiting from U.S. crop subsidies, so it’s not plausible to argue that there are any market distortions at work here that benefit this trend in the U.S.

    Finally, since when are environmentalists concerned about “food miles” arguing that we should grow local bananas everywhere, including Iceland? People who advocate local foods for environmental reasons argue that people should base their diets on foods grown locally and in-season. Disparage the idea all you want, but at least give your straw men the benefit of consistency.

  37. I think we can all agree that fruit suffers when you put in the fridge. What it likes, though, is to be soaked in booze and set on fire!

  38. I got it. We’re keeping all of our strawberries for the people in our community.
    You can have brussel sprout pie this Winter.

    Seriously, what right does anyone have to what used to be called an exotic delicacy from far away lands? Sustainability and survivability are the key. If you have to eat it and it doesn’t grow in your region.
    ……Move…..

  39. The author writes, “As agriculture became more efficient, people were liberated from farms and able to develop other skills that helped raise general living standards. People freed from having to scrabble for food, for instance, could work in factories, write software, or become physicians.”

    Does anyone else see the problem with this way of seeing the mass exodus from farms? The idea that a life built around the confines and clocking-in of the factory being a liberation from the scrabbling (is that another word for “work”?) for food shows just how deeply the industrial lie has set in to even otherwise reasonable people. We’re seeing now just how “liberated” our factory workers are, aren’t we? Dependent on the handouts of their unions, corporate execs, and government reps.

    Please.

  40. the author is correct re: the effects of efficient agriculture. the food import/export business and it’s impact have been going on for eons. the romans brought dates, spices, grains and more into rome from the far reaches of their empire. many of these imported goods originated from even further away, having been originally traded by client states of rome with more exotic lands.

    the carbon footprint of food shipping is relatively low or comparable to growing/shipping/storing locally is mostly due to the efficiencies of trans-oceanic freight and huge industrial farming processes. these systems are not currently sustainable. industrial agriculture practices are destroying soils and interplaying with economic systems that are equally destructive. one effect (besides corn and soy grown for feed and fuel rather than food) is the crippling of local agriculture (in for instance africa) because it’s cheaper to import rather than grow locally (due to subsidies in the exporting nations). this makes entire continents victims of elevating food prices tied to energy costs and geo-political issues beyond their control.

  41. This article misses the point of the local food movement completely. The idea of the locavore movement is to eat local foods that are in season and native to the area.

    This does indeed result in more nutritious, more ecologically responsible food. More nutritious because the food items don’t have to be picked well in advance of optimum ripeness to weather a long trip, so they have time to develop maximum nutritional value (not to mention flavor). And it’s more ecologically responsible because, if the food is native to that area and in-season, there’s no need for costly greenhouses and other such measures. Not to mention that it places a strong preference on the foods that typically reside in the peripheral areas of the modern grocery store–the produce, meat, and grain sections (whereas the vast majority of central aisles contain highly processed and packaged food produced by the industrial food complex, sourced from ingredients culled from globalized sources).

    Finally, most people I know that participate in the locavore style of food consumption (including myself) do not do so exclusively. The die-hards might eat exclusively from within a 100 mile radius, but most simply change their eating habits to default to local, in-season choices when they lack a strong preference towards something more exotic. This is exceedingly easy to do for many because it’s these choices are often tastier.

    The big downside at the moment is the increased expense. But this is true largely because the market is so small–these food choices remain the domain of boutique farms catering to choosier eaters. If more people even took the time to become *aware* of local food sources and seasonal availability, this problem would solve itself.

    Not many in the locavore movement hold forth that you must give your spouse a bouquet of local, in-season root vegetables. Give her the dozen roses–but when you cook her dinner that night, why not make a soup from those local, in-season root vegetables instead of using less-tasty, less-ripe, less-nutritional ingredients that have logged a lot of food miles?

  42. I tend to like buying and eating locally grown produce, but I certainly don’t go out of my way to do so. Usually, if I have the option of buying a local apple vs. one that was shipped from far away, and the prices are equivalent, I’ll buy local. But if the local variety is more expensive (which doesn’t really make sense), then I’ll tend to buy the cheaper variety.

    Not everything is in season all of the time, and living in the northeast, the winter might get kind of boring, with not much being in season.

    As for various other things, like using publica transportation to get to your market, this is obviously not an option for everybody. Living where I do, there is hardly any public transportation that will bring you to local farmers markets.

  43. Chaos Tamer: “Seriously, what right does anyone have to what used to be called an exotic delicacy from far away lands?”

    Eating food isn’t a right. If someone wants to eat something from a foreign land, they are free to do so.

  44. Forget this blather about carbon emmissions.

    I buy food at farmer markets because I like to talk to farmers, and by buying in-season I get a lot more variety in my diet, not less (unless you think eating 12 different kinds of tomatoes during the year is the same as eating 12 different foods).

    If you really want to force the world to make more rational consumption decisions, get rid of all the food subsidies. When New Yorkers have to pay the real price of that California strawberry, the whole distance thing will sort itself out soon enough.

  45. I’m amused to hear the word ‘activists’ attached to people who are merely concerned with how very far away we have gotten from our agricultural roots (pun aside). The facts are unsavory to ponder I know, but it’s just the truth that most commercially raised meats and poultry are sickly and have cancers and tumors by the time they are slaughtered, and most commercially produced fruits and vegetables are irradiated, picked green, and doused with more toxic pesticides than you can imagine. If the carbon emission issue turns you surly towards these ‘activists’ you might try on some of the above reasons as tangible persuasions for switching to local grown, organic food sources.

  46. Julia – “most commercially raised meats and poultry are sickly and have cancers and tumors by the time they are slaughtered”

    Whoa, you’ve certainly convinced me. No more meat from the supermarket. I’m going to start killing and eating the deer that come into my back yard instead. I’m thinking a deadfall trap.

  47. The first among several ideological falacies proposed in this article is that industrial farming “liberates” peoples from a life on the land. This is among the most persistent and egregiously ethnocentric (and class-centric) ideas about the benefits of modernization and industrial agriculture. One need look no farther than the expansion of urban slums–the most direct result of the author’s presumed liberation. Rather than freeing people to “develop other skills” that “raise general living standards,” the approximately one billion people living in urban slums live lives of utter desperation, lacking essential basic amenities like clean water or, ironically, a reliable food source. Slums serve as incubators for incipient diseases whose impact could reach far beyond slums themselves. The development of slums, including their disasterous ecological impacts, are not figured into the cost of industrial food production (nor are ground water pollution, soil depletion, etc.), though they are in fact a direct result of “liberating” people from the land.

    Secondly, the point is not whether Costa Rica has a better climate for growing bananas than Iceland, but rather asks us to consider whether we should eating bananas at all. The Banana industry has had devestating and well documented socio-economic and cultural consequences in central America. But the more salient concern is the fact that we need to consider producing alternatives closer to home. Why not give up bananas and start eating paw-paws?

    Like so many who defend the myopic quasi-ethic (anti-ethic?) of consumerism espoused by the author, he suggests that making responsible decisions is just too damn hard. Especially if this includes (gasp!) growing a portion of your own food (i.e., getting your hands dirty)! He suggests that this kind of drudgery is best left to peasants and the dark skinned industrial slaves of the global south. But is most emphatically not a dignified undertaking for the leisure class of the west, who would be better-served spending their time working on their tennis serve. Maybe he hasn’t heard, but colonialism is dead!

  48. Sully;
    You should probably get some sleep. I don’t need to convince anyone of the conditions penned commercial animals develop or the diseases which come of it. I’m not making things up for your entertainment. If you did just a bit of research on the subject you would come up with the same findings everyone else does. You’re perfectly welcome to kill your own meat if you think you’re up to it, but health of either the animals who are eaten or the animals who eat them may not be an issue for you. Everyone has to make their own choices, but it truly is best to make your choice with information rather than in a knee jerk reaction to something you didn’t like which some stranger said.

  49. Good grief.

    Everyone who eats the vegetables we grow can’t believe how much better they taste.

    After eating bananas and mangos right off the trees in the Caribbean, I’ll never eat another one here in the states. The taste is so different they might as well be different species.

    It doesn’t really take all that much time to grow enough food for a family and to sell enough to pay the bills.

    I know my time would be spent more productively selling mortgage backed assets or designing landscapes for hedge fund moguls…at least while they still have their riches…but I think I’ll die happy.

    This analysis is silly. Eat local food that is sensibly grown. Your taste buds will thank you for it.

  50. Julia – “most commercially raised meats and poultry are sickly and have cancers and tumors by the time they are slaughtered”

    Julia – “I’m not making things up”

    Really?

    The one making such extraordinary assertions is the one required to present evidence.

  51. “Farther,” not “further” (from the farm).

  52. “In other words, spend more time and effort finding, growing, and preparing food at the expense of other productive or leisure activities.”

    Because no-one thinks cooking and gardening are productive/leisure activities?

    You equate “Eat Local” with just food miles, when it is also a catch-phrase which encompasses eating a traditional local diet (what the area is best suited to growing) and eating in season. I think you’ve over-simplified the debate, when most ethical eaters already know the ins and outs of the balance between miles/method of production/organic/non-org/fair trade/free range, and factor that in to their choices.

  53. This past summer I grew all the tomatoes that I need for the whole year, something I have done without fail for the last 30 years. I grow the healthiest and tastiest food available anywhere. And hard physical work required to grow it will give me a longer, healthier and happier life. Saving carbon is a secondary, though important consideration.

    The idea of eating a tasteless store bought tomatoes is truly repugnant. I don’t know how anyone can do it. Probably they don’t know any better. Most commercially grown tomatoes are not really food, they are marketing marvels.

    (I can almost hear: “Gasp! He only eat tomatoes in season. And he cans food at home. And he gets his hands dirty. How primitive and anti-intellectual. Anti-capitalist, too.”)

    By the way sully, Julia Nunn is correct.

  54. Thank you for the disingenuous article.

    “Food miles advocates fail to grasp the simple idea that food should be grown where it is most economically advantageous to do so.”

    Actually “food miles advocates” might be factoring a lot of things into their calculus that the author doesn’t grasp. For one, the demand itself for locally grown foods. Price isn’t the only consideration. If it were, then perhaps factory farms that inject their livestock with antibiotics and hormones and keep them confined to living quarters reminiscent of German labor camps wouldn’t be such a problem. But there are health and ethical concerns that come with such practices, even if the author ignores those or wishes them away. It would be nice if, every now and then, one could recognize that when the consumer doesn’t, that consideration could be respected. The definition of “demand” does not submit to veto power by the price fanatical spokesperson for the state of the industry as it exists today.

    This only begins to touch on a much more intricate web of considerations that go beyond the scope of the article, although some of them the article inadvertently, one supposes, actually does manage to touch upon. When speaking of local conditions that are ideally suited to growing this favored product and shipping it abroad or that one, people forget that such conditions also hosted other, less “commercially optimized” products that once grew there too. Although biodiversity is probably not much of a concern for the author, once again, health issues come into play. When the US used to produce dozens of varieties of cattle, hens, and tomatoes, it reduced our reliance on the health of any single strain. Should a disease rise up that decimates the market for one strain, other varieties are available. Not so nowadays, but I suppose we feel we can make up for that by pumping our consumables with medicines, thereby increasing the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

    And while I’m not sure if the cold cost analysis of pre-medicating livestock is favorable to a dozen alternatives, the cost to the palate of the consumer who never gets to experience heirloom tomatoes and other forms of agricultural variety is immense. Some of the healthiest cultures (Mediterranean, Asian) have intentionally made use of the rich variety of foods they consciously worked to cultivate locally, incorporating them into their own particular cuisine and gastronomy. It is probably no accident that these cuisines became as rich as they did and prized by enthusiasts the world over.

    Read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for more details.

  55. By the way Leslie, I grow my own tomatoes and a few other things as well because of the poor taste and texture quality of certain varieties of supermarket produce in comparison. The only way I can validate the taste superiority of my tomatoes is to have someone try them, so I don’t make claims beyond what I know, which is that they taste better to me and everyone who has ever tried them. But that doesn’t mean I judge others who choose to take the supermarket path.

    Without presenting any evidence Julia made an assertion so far over the edge of credibility that it confounds common sense, in that animal raisers may well not give a damn about the health of their animals from a moral standpoint; but they would be extraordinarily foolish to set up a care regimen that failed to deliver a large proportion of healthy and thus economicly efficient animals to the slaughterhouses. And, some government inspectors and their bosses are no doubt corrupt or too stupid to see the nose in front of their faces; but even I’m not cynical enough to think every single one of them, or even the majority, is ignoring a situation as preposterous as what Julia alleges.

    I have to assume all of Julia’s opinions would make excellent fertilizer. You supported her ridiculous statement without supplying evidence after supplying a reasonable opinion about tomatoes. Hence you’re about half credible.

  56. Sully-

    Please. Have you seen film and/or read descriptions of an animals life on the typical CAFO (confined animal feeding operation)? The “care regimen” has cows, for example, standing in their own waste in pens. They are fed food their stomachs can’t digest properly because people like the far marbling it produces. Between that and the confinement they need large amounts of anti-biotics. That is not a “care regimen”. The same types of things happen to animals in other operations. This is not quality food. You can ignore it if you want but this stuff is not exactly hard to find information on. You can keep saying Julia isn’t credible but that’s intellectual laziness on your part because you know well enough that you can search for this stuff easily on your own.

  57. I would be more apt to listen to these researchers from the Mercatus Institute if they weren’t funded by Koch Industries, a company with a huge stake in the oil business.

  58. Well, let it be known I eat exclusively locally grown foods, for some values of “local”. Everything I eat was grown or produced on planet Earth!

  59. I agree that the simple ‘food miles’ concept is a poor consumers guide. In New Zealand we produce meat and dairy and horticultural products for the world.

    We need to. With a small population we cannot produce all types of products for ourselves.
    But also the kind climate allows our beasts to live outside healthily all year. The grass and other plants grow well all year. Indoor winters with their costs and their disease problems are not imposed on our animals.

    Our agriculture has never been destined for the local farmers markets. We have always sought to “feed the world”, and tried to rise to the challenge of sophisticated palates and demanding consumers.

    From a carbon footprint point of view our products have had to be affordable. Price is perhaps the best general guide to energy intensity. Cheaper foods are more energy efficient. One man and a dog running 200 cows eating the grass from under their feet in the ideal circumstances of New Zealand gives energy efficient food. It is good healthy food too.

    Send your school choir down next year and we’ll show them.

    Yours faithfully

    Owen Sharpe
    Festival Director
    New Zealand Schools Choral Festival
    http://www.schoolschoralfestival.co.nz

  60. Jonathan said it — “monoculture” — this is the elephant in the room that makes the issue of food miles an interesting distraction to the larger question of how can we all eat well, live well, and keep from burning through this planet’s resources at such a break-neck pace.

  61. Wow. This article really misses the point. Its obvious that if you eat local food out of season it takes more energy, thats a no brainer. If you eat local food that is IN season, it takes much less energy. It tastes better, and if you care about food it is really the only way to eat. People have become so far removed from the process of food production that we hardly even remember what a local plant picked at the right time tastes like versus cardboard shipped from Chile. Meat too, grass fed beef tastes much better than grain fed-you almost always have to shop local to find this.

    As far as the economic argument about the poorer countries: By the very nature of our subsidies being there, they have only learned to grow our mega crops and not support a local economy so that they can get themselves out of poverty. It’s almost like welfare. I’m from Arkansas and plenty of farmers only grow cotton and rice because the subsidies make it to where they almost have to.

  62. Hydroponics enables gardening enthusiasts to garden all year round using grow lights regardless of climate. Hydroponics is an indoor gardening method that requires no soil to grow plants.The water that is used to grow plants stays in the system and can be reused ? thus, lower water costs. Unlike conventional gardening, it is possible to control the nutrition levels in their entirety with hydroponics. With hydroponics pests and diseases are also easier to get rid of than in soil due to the mobility of the containers. Most importantly, hydroponics enables indoor gardeners to grow plants faster and with a higher yield than conventional gardening.
    http://www.revolutionhydroponics.com

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  65. Send your school choir down next year and we’ll show them.

  66. I think you make a really great point. It is important to minimize your carbon footprint as much as possible, but not at the sacrifice of fresh fruits and vegetables. I grew up in Alaska, where very little grows there, particularly in the winter because it is so harsh. If we didn’t get fruits and vegetable shipped in…well, it would be a little miserable. Thank goodness, I say, for technologies like high pressure homogenizers and airplanes that gave my childhood a varied diet!

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