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Shalmanese

Food Miles is a Crock

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So theres been a lot of talk in the last few years of "food miles", eating locally and 100 mile diets. Some of the supposed benifits of eating locally is that you become more in tune with the seasons, you support your local community, you eat fresher food and just general all round feel goodness. Now all of these are certainly valid claims and I am not disputing any of them. However, the chief claim that the "food mile" movement is making is that eating locally helps the environment through lowering the use of oil. On the face of it, this sounds fairly intuitive but I wasn't convinced so I decided to dig a bit further and try and answer the question does the choice to eat locally decrease the amount of carbon emitted and it seems like the answer is no.

I wasn't able to find any good figures for containerised shipping but I did manage to find this graph which shows the Ton-Miles per Gallon for Truck, Rail and Barge shipping.

Now assume that the typical surburban family drives a 25 Miles Per Gallon vehicle, lives 2.5 miles from their nearest supermarket and buys 20 pounds of groceries in the average shopping trip. So on one round trip, they will travel 5 miles and use 0.2 gallons of petrol to transport 0.01 tons of groceries. Going with the 514 Ton-Miles per Gallon for inland barges, that same barge could move 0.01 tons of groceries 10,000 miles for the same amount of fuel. Even if you assume container ships are the same efficiency as inland barges, you could move that 20 pounds of groceries exactly halfway around the world by ship for the same amount of fuel as it takes for you to go to the store and back. If you buy 40 pounds of groceries rather than 20, then it's a quarter of the way around the world. If you live 5 miles instead of 2.5 miles, then it's once around the world. If you drive a SUV which gets 12.5MPG and you live 5 miles away, then it's twice around the world. You can fiddle around with the numbers all you like but the conclusion seems inescapable, where your food comes from is less significant than how you choose to get it.

The math is even more disturbing when you look at exactly what eating locally actually means. For most people, that means buying as much of your food as possible from farmers markets. However, you can't get everything from farmers markets so it's likely that you need to still make the same amount of trips to the supermarket to get all of the other stuff you need. Your trips to the farmers markets then become an added fuel expenditure on top of your existing supermarket trips. In addition, farmers markets are usually further away that supermarkets, just by virtue of there are less of them so thats an even bigger fuel cost.

But how the goods get from the farm to the market is also an important consideration. Your typical farmers market has many small farmers from within a 100 mile or so radius individually shipping in small amounts of good via cars and small trucks. Lets say the average farmer ships in 500 pounds of produce from 50 miles away in a 10MPG truck. This means they consume 5 gallons of fuel to ship 1/4 of a ton.

Now the prototypical "lamb from New Zealand" and "Cherries from Chile" were probably moved via truck to the nearest port in huge containers and then shipped via sea to one of the US ports before being trucked to a central distribution centre and then on to the local supermarket. Even if you assume the goods travel 5000 miles by barge and 500 miles by truck, it would still only take 4.5 gallons of fuel to transport that same 1/4 ton. If you happen to be living in a port city (Every large city except Chicago), then the distance from the port to your supermarket is even closer and even less fuel would be used.

Now, does this on the face of it means that eating locally is crap? Of course not, all of the previous reasons to do with freshness, seasonality and supporting local farmers are still valid. But what is total crap is the idea that somehow eating locally is good for the environment through the decrease in carbon emissions from shipping. While the idea has immediate intuitive appeal, if you peer at the actual numbers, the reality is that modern containerized shipping and distribution has become so efficient that it's only really the last few miles that are important.

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Another benefit is maintaining greenbelts near and around metro and suburban areas.

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Now the prototypical "lamb from New Zealand" and "Cherries from Chile" were probably moved via truck to the nearest port in huge containers and then shipped via sea to one of the US ports before being trucked to a central distribution centre and then on to the local supermarket. Even if you assume the goods travel 5000 miles by barge and 500 miles by truck, it would still only take 4.5 gallons of fuel to transport that same 1/4 ton. If you happen to be living in a port city (Every large city except Chicago), then the distance from the port to your supermarket is even closer and even less fuel would be used.

I think this part of your argument only works if those barges have some big-ass sails on them.

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Another matter is just general economics. The market becomes less efficient if the buying public places a high cost (defined as any disincentive in addition to actual price) on food miles. As markets become less efficient, waste increases, quality of living is reduced.

Also, food miles discourages specialization and the economics of scale are lost.

The most efficient market solution is to simply penalize carbon emission production (through international treaties and pollution credits). That way the market assigns the true value of pollution from transportation and pricing becomes more efficient.

I also agree that on face "food miles" is a bullshit argument usually espoused by under-informed yuppies who buy everything organic because they can afford it -- the Whole Foods crowd, if you will (OK, maybe that's getting too controversial). This is also the same crowd that loves sushi, so I always like to bring that up when one of them starts going off on "food miles" and then they quickly have a change of heart.

I'll buy local if it tastes better, not because of pollution.

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While the idea has immediate intuitive appeal,

Myself, I only deal in intuitive appeal, Shalmanese, never with *facts*, for *facts*, factually, are much more contradictory when well-explored and fully gathered than anything intuitive.

And I think that *most* people deal in intuitive appeal, then gather the facts they wish to support whatever it is their intuition points to.

But what appeals to me intuitively, is that a global economy, with its shipping and sharing of foods and cultures is a good thing.

Gloom and doom is always with us, of course, it has travelled hand-in-hand as companion with every step of creative congress humanity has ever taken.

If someone wants to eat locally, and find reasons for it, no reason for them not to.

I'll continue to eat globally.

I do wonder how well eating locally goes over in areas where there is poor soil and little water, histories of ongoing war and social disruption. Most of those, of course, are not here in our country, but the challenge to "eat locally" certainly seems to be a bit difficult sometimes, even moreso than if I had to eat turnips and dried beef through the winter, here.


Edited by Carrot Top (log)

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While the idea has immediate intuitive appeal,

I do wonder how well eating locally goes over in areas where there is poor soil and little water, histories of ongoing war and social disruption. Most of those, of course, are not here in our country, but the challenge to "eat locally" certainly seems to be a bit difficult sometimes, even moreso than if I had to eat turnips and dried beef through the winter, here.

Where I live, my diet would consist mostly of venison, (which has been in good supply lately), wild rice, (the crop was poor this season), some root vegetables, (the earth is snow covered for half the year), apples, and maybe a few fresh tomatoes for a couple weeks each year. We have plenty of water, but it's frozen for five to six months.

No Thanks! :sad: (although it's not really that bad)

There's certainly nothing wrong with eating locally, any more than there is to patronizing neighborhood merchants. It's a "nice" thing to do.

To try and expand a "nice" idea into an international economic or environmental argument is ludicrous. :angry:

SB (Remember, up until recent times we had no choice but to "eat locally". We didn't like it.)

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To try and expand a "nice" idea into an international economic or environmental argument is ludicrous.  :angry:

Particularly interesting as when "we" think of doing it, it's all from apparently a good place within ourselves, but when "others" do the same in any formal way it's called "zenophobia". :smile:

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To try and expand a "nice" idea into an international economic or environmental argument is ludicrous.  :angry:

Particularly interesting as when "we" think of doing it, it's all from apparently a good place within ourselves, but when "others" do the same in any formal way it's called "zenophobia". :smile:

I believe that srhcb is making a case that this concept is flawed because it is not practical.

It matters not who came up with or is advancing the 100 mile philosophy--it doesn't work.

:wink:

Much of the world's population does not live in areas where local sustainable (we won't bother with the convoluted definitions) makes any sense.

So you won't accuse me of "zenophobia" let's take the New York metropolitan area.

It is nice to have more produce that is locally grown available--farmer's markets are a good thing. But to think that a population of twenty or thirty million (and expanding) is going to be fed largely from these farms is sheer folly. especially where there is a relatively short growing season.

There is simply not enough land for these farms.

The food from these farms can not be produced economically--organic chicken costs a hell of a lot more--so do heirloom tomatoes.

The whole notion is flawed from an ecological pov.--we are just beginning to see a return of forests (a good thing) farms of any kind create runoff problems (see the problem in the Chesapeake bay re: shellfish production).

Sorry--we are simply not going back to the nineteenth century and becoming an agrarian society again. We are a nation of three hundred million people. My guess is we are better off if large agribusiness continues to improve its production methods. I would say that more awareness on the part of consumers and more pressure on all food producers large and small to produce better quality and safer food through better methods is very positive and welcome.

But let's be a bit more pragmatic here.

:smile:

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I think of the "food miles" concept not as a mathematical absolute but as an illustration of how a system that emphasizes price over all other factors can be gratuitously wasteful of natural resources. To be sure, the search for quality also consumes resources, though.

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Some of the economies of scale in the industrial food system are propped up by subsidies; this number does not appear at the bottom of your grocery receipt but you are nonetheless paying for it.

Another factor is diversification versus centralization. This summer's spinach situation was unfortunate and, while the same kind of thing can happen in a more localized system, it affects fewer people/markets, is faster and easier to trace to the source and doesn't result in the destruction of the vast amount of crop as it did in the Salinas Valley.

Not to take away from any of the points above. Just think there are multiple factors to be considered and these two are important IMHO.

Edited to remove a superfluous word.


Edited by moosnsqrl (log)

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I think of the "food miles" concept not as a mathematical absolute but as an illustration of how a system that emphasizes price over all other factors can be gratuitously wasteful of natural resources. To be sure, the search for quality also consumes resources, though.

Waste, gratuitous or otherwise, will sooner or later catch up with any system, and will need to be accounted for in cost/price calculations. Wise use of resources, natural or otherwise, is efficient, and ultimately profitable.

There will always be instances of misappropriation, exploitation, and beauracratic bungling that upset the equation, but in general anything that advances the prospect of greater selection for the largest number of consumers wouldn't be considered "gratuitously wasteful" if one considers human beings our greatest "natural resource"?

SB (naturally resourceful :wink: )

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If the ultimate goal here is to save on resources (i.e. gas and oil) within the scope of what and how we eat, perhaps those who use the cars that clog the highways, and the planes that swim through the air, on major holidays, should just eat at home on holidays. That would save a lot of resources.

Actually, maybe people should live in the same neighborhoods if they want to dine with each other. No further away than one could walk or ride a bike.

Same thing for work, of course. As we must eat during the day we really should always live near enough to where we work to not waste resources.

I say let the food travel and keep the people off the roads. Heh.

Yes. I'd like to see those numbers.

:rolleyes:


Edited by Carrot Top (log)

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While conserving resources and cutting down on pollution are admirable endeavors, it strikes me that there are many, many more obvious ways to do that before looking at where food originated versus where it's consumed.

A lot of people on the planet aren't going to have much to eat if we go to the 100 mile 'rule'. Midwestern farmers depend on exporting wheat and other grains to distant markets; if only those within 100 miles of the farm (or elevator? or grain mill?) are 'allowed' to purchase the grains, those farms won't be in business very long.

I would assume that many other food producers must also rely on markets all over the globe, in order for their profit margin to provide an income they can live on.

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A couple of food-miles-related issues that bug me: first, that so much of the organic produce in local supermarkets here in New York comes from South America; second, that so many resources are expended to ship bottled drinking water around the world.

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Much of the world's population does not live in areas where local sustainable (we won't bother with the convoluted definitions) makes any sense.

So you won't accuse me of "zenophobia" let's take the New York metropolitan area.

It is nice to have more produce that is locally grown available--farmer's markets are a good thing. But to think that a population of twenty or thirty million (and expanding) is going to be fed largely from these farms is sheer folly. especially where there is a relatively short growing season.

There is simply not enough land for these farms.

I don't think this is prima facia true. If it were, human society wouldn't have survied a single generation before the advent of modern farming and distribution systems. The entire world had not choice but to eat locally and put food by for off seasons for centuries.

But I think you're correct in the sense that the way society is structured now is inextricably linked to global distribution networks and economies of scale, and thus the shift towards purchasing locally will not work from the top down.

I think the original argument is flawed, because if you assume that a consumer will either be driving to a supermarket or driving to an equidistant farmer's market or CSA distribution point, fuel usage on the end is equal. If I drive to the farm to pick up my produce at the point of origin, I've saved fuel. If I pick a salad from my garden, I've saved fuel. You also didn't take into account the amount of fossil fuel consumed in the industrial growing process versus a small farm where much of the labor is human rather than fuel intensive. Interesting thought excercise though, to be sure.

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.... so many resources are expended to ship bottled drinking water around the world.

I'm with you 100% on that one!

A friend of mine was a delivery man for a local bottled water company. The company bottles water directly from the town's well:

"The water comes from an underground aquifer that's 700 or 1,000 feet deep, depending on who you ask. The city has been drawing water from the aquifer since 1901, and selling it for close to 20 years."

Lots of people paid to have the same water delivered that they could get from their own tap!

SB (go figure? :wacko: )

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While the idea has immediate intuitive appeal,

Myself, I only deal in intuitive appeal, Shalmanese, never with *facts*, for *facts*, factually, are much more contradictory when well-explored and fully gathered than anything intuitive.

And I think that *most* people deal in intuitive appeal, then gather the facts they wish to support whatever it is their intuition points to.

Familiar quotations time:

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics." --Mark Twain (attributed)

"What a wonderful thing it is that man is a reasonable creature, for it allows him to think of a reason for anything he may want to do." --Benjamin Franklin, from the Autobiography

I've been engaged in a (very civil) argument on an e-mail listserv devoted to discussion of transportation policy (!) on the subject of "sprawl" development threatening farmland around major cities (the Philadelphia region's prime candidate for the endangered-farmland list: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania). I had argued that while the loss of this farmland would make no difference in our ability to feed ourselves as a nation, it would have a deleterious effect on the quality and freshness of the foods city-dwellers eat.

Frankly, I think those are the only (ahem) sustainable arguments one can make in favor of preferring locally produced foodstuffs. And even then, the strength of the argument varies: grain and foods made from grain generally keep and travel very well, so there's no real advantage to growing grain in the Northeast, say, instead of in the Midwestern breadbasket states. (Actually, from a soil and climate standpoint, the Northeast is less suited to the large-scale production of grain.) And in a similar vein, there are certain foods we enjoy that can only be grown in lands or climates that may be distant relative to where we consume the foods; as my interlocutor so wittily put it in response to my first assertion, "I've been disappointed with the quality of the coffee and oranges grown around Chicago."

So on the whole, I'd have to conclude that the benefits of "eating globally" far outweigh the costs. But there are areas -- produce in general is one -- where preferring local products makes some sense, at least from a quality standpoint, and it's not a bad idea at all to identify ways to reduce the costs associated with a global, industrial-scale food production and distribution system.

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So on the whole, I'd have to conclude that the benefits of "eating globally" far outweigh the costs. But there are areas -- produce in general is one -- where preferring local products makes some sense, at least from a quality standpoint, and it's not a bad idea at all to identify ways to reduce the costs associated with a global, industrial-scale food production and distribution system.

I agree with you, Sandy, particularly in the area that I placed in bold letter above.

What bothers me most is the sense of evangelism that is attached to the locavore movement.

Secondarily, the holes in the theory then bother me. :wink::laugh:

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let's take the New York metropolitan area.

It is nice to have more produce that is locally grown available--farmer's markets are a good thing. But to think that a population of twenty or thirty million (and expanding) is going to be fed largely from these farms is sheer folly. especially where there is a relatively short growing season.

There is simply not enough land for these farms.

Just out of curiosity, how much farmland is needed to feed the population of the Greater New York Metropolitan Area? Somebody must be able to do that computation. Is it more or less farmland than exists in New Jersey, Connecticut and the Hudson River Valley? Or would it be possible to pull it off, just in terms of the raw calories needed for survival and leaving aside issues of what would be available when?

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Just out of curiosity, how much farmland is needed to feed the population of the Greater New York Metropolitan Area? Somebody must be able to do that computation. Is it more or less farmland than exists in New Jersey, Connecticut and the Hudson River Valley? Or would it be possible to pull it off, just in terms of the raw calories needed for survival and leaving aside issues of what would be available when?

there is no easy formula because so much depends on the type of crop, the type of soil, the climate and even the specifics of year-to-year variation. While it's true that most of the peaches and almost all of the nectarines in the united states are grown in a 50-mile belt between fresno and bakersfield, it would be foolish to think that you could easily transpose those figures to new york.

there are many reasons that agriculture migrated west last century and urban pressures are just one of them (like we don't have those here?). to use the peaches and nectarines as an example, they do best in an area that has cool wet winters and hot dry summers (humidity encourages all sorts of bad things). More to the point for New York, that's the same reason the pear and apple industries, which once thrived in new york, moved to eastern washington.

still, i say the ideal solution is for each of us to grow everything we eat in our back yards. there's no transportation cost (well, maybe tennis shoes); you can control exactly the inputs you want; and you can be assured of always having exactly what you want to eat (as long as nothing bad happens).

Short of that, I'm afraid, we're all just compromising.

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let's take the New York metropolitan area.

It is nice to have more produce that is locally grown available--farmer's markets are a good thing. But to think that a population of twenty or thirty million (and expanding) is going to be fed largely from these farms is sheer folly. especially where there is a relatively short growing season.

There is simply not enough land for these farms.

Just out of curiosity, how much farmland is needed to feed the population of the Greater New York Metropolitan Area? Somebody must be able to do that computation. Is it more or less farmland than exists in New Jersey, Connecticut and the Hudson River Valley? Or would it be possible to pull it off, just in terms of the raw calories needed for survival and leaving aside issues of what would be available when?

Estimates very wildly, depending more on politics than any combination of scientific, agricultural and medical data, but if you figure on 1/8 hectare per person for sustainable subsistence living, you'll get some rough idea.

SB :wink:

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Where I live, my diet would consist mostly of venison, (which has been in good supply lately), wild rice, (the crop was poor this season), some root vegetables, (the earth is snow covered for half the year), apples, and maybe a few fresh tomatoes for a couple weeks each year.  We have plenty of water, but it's frozen for five to six months.

Anybody who hasn't already should read Bill McKibben's piece from Gourmet, "A Grand Experiment," wherein he eats locally through a Vermont winter. The interesting thing isn't that he was able to do it, but rather that, as he puts it: "I'm writing this, so you know I survived. But in fact I survived in style—it was the best eating winter of my life."

The growing season in the Hudson Valley is neither terribly long nor terribly short. The CSA I get produce from delivers for 24 weeks, roughly half the year. It's not hard to imagine taking half the delivery each week and freezing, canning or otherwise preserving it (in frozen soups, etc) so as to be able to eat vegetables and fruits for the other half of the year.

No, they wouldn't be fresh (though fruits like apples can be stored fresh all winter, as can things like potatoes), but fruits and vegetables are only part of the diet anyway. There are few climate restrictions on grains, meat, fish, dairy, etc. So I think the horror of having to eat seasonally is often somewhat overstated.

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Anybody who hasn't already should read Bill McKibben's piece from Gourmet, "A Grand Experiment," wherein he eats locally through a Vermont winter. The interesting thing isn't that he was able to do it, but rather that, as he puts it: "I'm writing this, so you know I survived. But in fact I survived in style—it was the best eating winter of my life."

The growing season in the Hudson Valley is neither terribly long nor terribly short. The CSA I get produce from delivers for 24 weeks, roughly half the year. It's not hard to imagine taking half the delivery each week and freezing, canning or otherwise preserving it (in frozen soups, etc) so as to be able to eat vegetables and fruits for the other half of the year.

No, they wouldn't be fresh (though fruits like apples can be stored fresh all winter, as can things like potatoes), but fruits and vegetables are only part of the diet anyway. There are few climate restrictions on grains, meat, fish, dairy, etc. So I think the horror of having to eat seasonally is often somewhat overstated.

Oh, I'm sure it can be done. But eating locally through a Vermont winter, having had adequate time to plan and prepare, is somewhat different than trying to provide for a family, year after year, totally at the mercy of the elements.

My Grandfather was born in Harding County, South Dakota. (the poorest part of SD, and that's saying something!) When my family had the old farmstead appraised in the 50's its agricultural potential was stated as "maybe suitable for grazing horses."

My Grandfather liked to tell his story about bananas. They were available once a year. One time his Dad bought a whole stalk, and everyone ate so many they all got sick. My Grandfather never ate bananas again in his life.

They "subsisted" all right, but there was nothing romantic or noble about it.

SB (no thanks :wink: )

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Strangely enough, I can think of things that are more rewarding to do, personally, than spend my time on earth (needlessly) limiting my food sources to a hundred-mile radius, maintaining a garden and a wheat field, and canning/drying/preserving whatever foods come from this.

Karen (not barefoot, pregnant, or always in the kitchen or fields)

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The growing season in the Hudson Valley is neither terribly long nor terribly short. The CSA I get produce from delivers for 24 weeks, roughly half the year. It's not hard to imagine taking half the delivery each week and freezing, canning or otherwise preserving it (in frozen soups, etc) so as to be able to eat vegetables and fruits for the other half of the year.

would that be the fat guy, or the mrs. fat guy who is going to give up their job to manage the homestead?

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