Food Miles and Family Farms: The Question of Sustainable Food

While doing some research for a project on food distribution last week, I came across some interesting articles that question the concept of food miles as an effective strategy to reduce greenhouse gases emissions in the food system. One, is a study from the UK that claims that if a person were to drive more than 7.4 kilometers rounds trip to a farm stand, the emissions per unit of food from that trip would be greater than a large scale produce distribution system that would deliver food directly to a customer’s doorstep.  The second claims that eating less red meat is a much more effective way of lowering one’s greenhouse gas emissions via food choices than buying locally grown food. (For anyone interested in reading either of these articles the full citations are at the bottom.)

However, the authors of both articles addmit that carbon impact is a fairly narrow way of judging one’s food choices. Yet it feels to me that this idea has been receiving a good deal of attention lately, with the locavore movement sweeping across the country. While I recognize that these two articles are by no means an exhaustive review of the literature on food miles (which the authors examine in  very specific contexts), their challenge to the assumptions of the food miles narrative got me asking what it means to have a sustainable food system.  When we ask the question “how can we, as urban residents, make sustainable food choices,” what are we really asking?

Food miles is a neat way of packaging our understanding of sustainable, responsible food choices. Comes from far away = large carbon footprint = bad.  Comes from close by = small carbon footprint = good. Reducing the debate about food to this simple equation is easy but, as it allows us to ignore many of the complexities of the food system and the varied reasons that people make the food choices that they do. And then we find out, our assumptions may be wrong. What are we then, as environmentally conscious consumers to do? Out with the local? Not quite.

I think about the people who are involved in the local food movement here in New York City. While some may have an interest in reducing their carbon footprint through the foods they eat, it seems to me that their choices are rooted in a much deeper, personal connection to the food system. Those involved in community supported agriculture (CSAs) are (exactly as the name suggests) part of communities that support regional farmers and the (overwhelmingly organic) production of food on regional agricultural land.  Others are part of co-ops, community gardens, or education projects that work to teach people about growing, cooking and just better understanding food. The list goes on.

Upon thinking about it a little more, the one connecting thread of all these different local food activities seems to be just that: connection. The local food movement offers people a way to connect with each other, and the landscape around them. These opportunities are especially important in the urban environment, which can easily alienate people from one other. That isn’t to say that other considerations don’t come into play when choosing local food. The local food movement is a really “lumpy tent,” to use Michael Pollan’s phrase.  But for precisely that reason local shouldn’t be understood to equal carbon footprint and carbon footprint alone.

While, as the authors point out, food miles may be a useful quantitative tool in describing one specific aspect of the environmental friendliness of our food system, there is a whole lot that it doesn’t take into account. Looking around at the local food work being done in New York City, it is about community empowerment, and teaching children where their food comes from, and getting to know neighbors, and making sure that farm animals are treated humanely, and supporting family farms, and protecting farmland from development, and sometimes it’s just about eating a really tasty tomato.

As is evident from the local food movement, a sustainable food system is about so much more than the carbon food print of your lunch. It takes into account much larger questions of equity, community, and respect for people and land. Ultimately, local does not mean sustainable as it is, at its core, a measure of scale. Unsustainable food practices (from production to distribution to waste) take place all over the world close enough for someone to call them “local.” However, the local food movement lets us see the impact of our choices close-up, feeding the hearts, minds and (let’s not forget) bellies of those who chose to participate.

Image via Thrifty Living

Coley, D.,  Howard M., and M Winter. (2009). Local food, food miles, and carbon emissions: A comparison of farm shop and mass distribution approaches. Food Policy. 34 (2): 150-155.

Weber, C.L. and H.S. Matthews. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science and Technology. 42 (10): 3508-3513.



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