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Rethinking Food Miles

We have all heard mantras relating to the benefits of eating locally compared to the supposed detriment of buying food trucked in from far away.  However, in his book, Just Food, Dr. James McWilliams cautions us against this over-simplistic approach to buying our weekly groceries.  According to McWilliams, this overemphasis on food miles dilutes the actual problems facing our food system and calls for a more holistic view to implementing solutions.

The “localvore” philosophy has gained massive attention by green enthusiasts and farmers market regulars for a number of years.  It’s message is easy: ensure the food you eat has traveled as few miles as possible. The truth however, is that well, what actually defines local has yet to be clearly articulated, and how eating this way can actually solve our serious food  and environmental problems is also still up for debate.

LCA: A Better Solution.

A method of energy evaluation called life-cycle assessment (LCA), is a more sophisticated form of analysis receiving increased attention as it offers important explanations regarding the inadequacies behind the “low food miles=greener food” assumption that has been the long-standing and under-examined standard.

A life-cycle assessment is a thorough energy evaluation that incorporates several factors of production and consumption to reasonably measure a product’s true carbon footprint.  As it turns out, transportation is just one factor among many taken into consideration during the assessment.  Other measures include: water usage, harvesting techniques, pesticide application, disposal of product packaging, and more.

This expanded look has also encouraged research into the energy use during the consumption process. Researchers now look at the expanded energy used when shoppers who adhere to “buying local” must buy food from more than one outlet (all essentials cannot be found at a farmers market), as well as efficiency or inefficiency of home cooking methods.  For example, McWilliams cites one study of hamburger production where cooking and storing were the most energy consuming stages of production and transportation the least.

A strong local food community is an important piece of a larger solution set but it is not a cure-all and there are many hidden pitfalls. Local food suppliers cannot manage year round demand due to seasonal obstacles, as well as distribution and problems of scale.  McWilliams continues at length on the many logistical problems in trying to promote local food as the go-to food paradigm nationwide.

Travel miles are important, but “eating green” means looking beyond food miles.  To start making an immediate impact today, begin by reducing your meat consumption. Meat is very energy intensive and is responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions.  Our website has several tips and tricks available to anyone who wants to truly eat green.