Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Food Miles as a concept

More and more it is becoming fashionable for people to be talking about Food Miles - the idea that getting your fruit from Chile is worse for the world than buying it on the Saanich Peninsula for a small grower. I am not convinced of this as being valid.

The idea has been around for some time but really take off lately with the 100 Mile Diet. The book and movement has been spurred on people that are expecting a collapse of the global transportation networks due to Peak Oil - the Doomsday Scenario de Jour. The doomsday people fit into the food security crowd, not something I buy into at all.

I think a lot of people general public have jumped on the idea of local food and food miles because they want the connection to where their food comes from and not be plugged into a big anonymous food system. I personally believe that it is important to know about where my food comes from and feel a real connection to what I eat, to know what I am putting into my body. My belief means I really research what goes into my food.

There are simplistic calculators out there for you to know where your food miles, but I do not like them as they do not tell the whole story. The important question that needs to be asked is how much fuel did it take for some food to make into your house?

For a lot of us the single biggest fuel use for our food is our own trip to buy it from the store. If you drive 10 km total round trip to buy your food, odds are that you used about a litre of fuel to get that food. If you bought ten pounds of food, that is 1/10 of a litre per pound. Trucking a tomato from California to Save-On-Foods will use about 1/75 of a litre per pound to get that tomato to the store. If you were to truck it in from southern Mexico, it would still only be about 1/40 of a litre. To be doing better than the fuel used to truck that food you would have to live within 1.25 km of the store for a total round trip of 2.5 km.

Buying in bulk at a place Costco means your fuel use per pound of food is much lower than if you buy a small amount at your local store.

Now we come to farmer's markets. Since I ran a stall at a farmer's market for several years and detailed all my costs, I know exactly the amount of fuel I used per pound of produce I sold. Over two seasons I averaged about 1/40th of a litre per pound of produce, or the same as trucking in a tomato from Mexico. Some people did better, but at a place like Moss Street market in Victoria, there volume of produce most people sell is not on the same scale of what I sold. I would estimate the typical produce vendor is using about 1/25th and 1/30th of a litre of fuel to get that produce to the market. Those pocket markets that are setting up are even worse.

Let us say in the summer I go for a drive to the Cowichan valley to buy directly from local producers. Let us say I get 20 pounds of assorted produce - I will have ended up used almost a litre for each pound of produce I buy. I have four sons and cook at home a lot so I would make use of 20 pounds in a timely manner, but I suspect most people would not buy that much.

Now if one includes ships in the transport, the distance the food travels becomes almost irrelevant. Here is an interesting article about lamb from New Zealand versus lamb from the UK - if you live in London it is better for the planet to buy the Kiwi lamb. If food miles labelling is adopted, people will be making choices that are bad for the environment because they do not understand what is going on. Actually, eating meat in of itself is a much bigger issue. When I worked out my carbon footprint in detail, 21% of my CO2 and equivilants came from meat in the year previous. It would have been even higher if I had not taken two air trips. I suspect that in the last year it was closer to 28% of my carbon footprint.

IF people really cared about this issue, they would grow their own food, but most people are not willing to do that and only want to feel like they are doing 'the right thing' and not think about the real implications.

Local production does not mean better, certainly something grown in Canada or the US typically will have had a lot more chemical inputs to raise it because of the government subsidies of farming. Farmers in countries like Argentina or Vietnam use as few chemicals as they can because they have to efficient.
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