Thursday, August 30, 2007

Food Miles

I buy most of my food locally at Farmer's Markets. I do it for a lot of reasons (most of them heavily influenced by Michael Pollan and the like). I am, however, extremely skeptical of the concept of "food miles." The short story is that I think it is a highly oversimplified idea and that the people who follow it with a sort of religious ferocity simply refuse to recognize the complexity of the issue (include accounting for economies of scale and the efficiency derived therefrom) and the extremely difficult overall empirical calculations that must be considered for any individual piece of food.

Anyway, I am not saying anything that hasn't already been said on blogs in the past year, in large part as part of a discussion to an Economist article reacting to Pollan's Dilemma. But the only reason I am mentioning now is to call attention to a thoughtful editorial in the Times a few weeks back that some of you might have missed.

1 comment:

The Cease said...

I finally had a chance to check out this Economist article. I didn't get to the Times article before it went "Select" but I'll find it elsewhere.

My reaction to the Economist article is mixed. I tend to think the arguement against Fair Trade seems reasonable. But I'm not convinced that the argument against local food supplies is convincing. I think it requires some assumptions that I'm unwilling to support.

First, there is an assumption that we should have access to all types of food regardless of the season and where we live. I love variety as much as the next guy, and sometimes I want a pineapple even though I know it probably required a gallon of gas just to get it to my supermarket. But fresh tomatoes in England in winter are not a human right. Nor are fresh peaches in NY in spring. We've survived for thousands of years on foods that are restricted to certain seasons. Plus, if you want tomatoes in winter, can them in summer or buy locally sourced canned tomatoes. There are plently of ways to get your lycopene in winter without buying hot house tomatoes. Hence, it isn't enough to just say that shipping tomatoes in from Spain to England is better for the environment b/c it would take more energy to grown them in greenhouses out of season. Instead, we need to rethink the idea that it's our God given right to have fresh tomatoes year round.

Another factor this article fails to take into consideration is that economies of scale and conglomorate farming actually limit our choices. Industrial farms will focus on whatever they can grow or raise most efficiently--hence they'll pick one or two strains of a specific plant because its fruit travels long distances w/o getting bruised. And they'll only breed one or two types of chickens, turkeys, cattle, pig, etc., because they produce the most meat on the least amount of food. This is well and good if you like bland vegetables, tasteless eggs, and antibiotic-filled poultry.

Local farmers are able to keep hundreds of varities of plant and animal thriving b/c they don't have to worry about their product holding up over long distances. And they can raise animals that have more flavor (and don't need to be pumped up with drugs), because they don't raise them in inhumane quarters.

Besides the fact that this allows for greater choice, it also protects us, as humans, from some potentially scary situations. As the global climate changes dramatically, we may very well find ourselves in a situation where these very few varities that factory farms use are unable to grow under the new conditions. If we put all of our eggs in one basket, we could be majorly screwed once those eggs refuse to hatch. We may think we've outwitted natural selection, but the time may come when we'll be more than happy that these local farmers went through the trouble of keeping heirloom and heritage products alive so that we still have viable alternatives.