Food Miles

February 14, 2010

I’m sitting at home with my foot in the air. It’s doctor’s orders while I’m on the mend from minor surgery. In order to cheer me up, by daughter Dory air shipped me a box of Delicious Tamales from San Antonio. She picked out three varieties: the regular pork tamales that made them famous, their “sweet tamales” and their Southwestern vegetarian variety. They are all mighty good. I would recommend them as a major extravagance for those who can’t just drive down to Culebra Road or one of the other five locations in San Antonio. They do ship frozen tamales nationally, and shipping is the same price for one dozen or ten.

Dory was returning a favor that I had done her a few months back when I was passing through Toledo. I stopped at Tony Packo’s and had five jars of Pickles and Peppers shipped to her. Neither of these things makes sense. Granted, I don’t think I can find anything quite like a Delicious Tamale here in Lansing, and Tony Packo’s Pickles and Peppers are pretty unique. But the whole “food miles” thing weighs in heavily against doing stuff like this on any kind of regular basis.

For anyone interested, there is a very good article on food miles at Wikipedia.com. The idea was to estimate the environmental impact of consuming different foods by calculating how many miles a food travels before it winds up on your plate. “Limiting one’s food miles” was a major part of the rationale behind local food: trying to source as much of one’s diet from farms or gardens within a hundred miles of one’s dinner table. It’s admittedly a rough estimate, and the Wikipedia article does a good job of explaining why.  Succinctly, transportation accounts for only about 4% of the greenhouse gasses associated with food production and consumption, so other points of emphasis may be more appropriate.

The food miles debate has led to a number of complicated studies (many reviewed in Wikipedia) intended to better understand environmental impacts from food production. All of them involve drastic oversimplifications that limit their usefulness for any conscientious eater. For example, an influential study by Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews concluded that shifting to a vegetarian diet would have more positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions than limiting one’s food miles. I don’t doubt that this is correct if we to were to compare the average effect that localism and vegetarianism would have if all food consumers were to choose one or the other of these options. But neither is a very realistic scenario, and I think that Weber and Mathews’ conclusion would be bad advice to offer someone pondering how they should limit the environmental impact of what they eat. Their averaging approach does not take into account the knock-on affects of becoming a conscientious eater.

I want to be clear that I am not against vegetarianism, but one problem with it is that for many becoming vegetarian is a “quick fix” dietary response that does not lead them to be more thoughtful about their total package of food choices. It means 7-layer burritos at Taco Bell, and vegetarian pizzas from Dominos. One still shops at Meijer for veggie burgers, which are still adorned with out-of-season tomatoes from Mexico and iceberg lettuce flown in from Chile or the Netherlands on 747s, then served with frozen fries. In contrast, no one who tries to “eat local” is going to be happy with that chub of ground beef in the supermarket or the bacon & eggs at the local Denny’s. Sourcing local meat, milk and eggs will more often than not lead one inevitably to smaller scale producers who are practicing sustainable agriculture. In conjunction with the thoughtful eating practices that (I hypothesize) more reliably accompany the “going local,” vegetarianism is great, or at least okay. It still ignores the way that animals and animal wastes are essential components of the most successful organic production methods, but I’m quite willing to cut all the vegetarian locavores a bit of slack on that point. Instead of emphasizing the local, being vegetarian is still better than eating the way most Americans eat, but I question the thought that one does more for the environment when one chooses that over localism.

Weber and Mathews also ignore the role of animals in most alternatives to industrial agriculture. The focus of their analysis was on climate impact, and that is another example of the necessary simplifications that technical studies of the food system require. Climate is only one dimension of the environmental impact that comes from food production. Farming has dramatic effects on biodiversity, water quality and the inherent productive potential of soil ecosystems. It is an open question as to how traditional farms or alternative farms (like Appleschram, where Thornapple is based) would score on the life cycle methodology used by Weber and Mathews, but their 2008 article would lead you to believe that the animal production on these farms is an environmental “No-No”.

So I apologize for complicating things yet again. To reiterate: don’t feel too guilty if you decide to have some Delicious Tamales air shipped from San Antonio once in your life. But don’t make a habit of it, and don’t think that limiting your order to those wonderful Southwestern Vegetarian tamales makes it okay, either.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University



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11 thoughts on “Food Miles

  1. And I’m sure whining liberals are going to use this as another excuse to impose more government meddling into private companies and make it harder for companies to compete, employ workers and do business by heaping another pile of stupid regulations upon them.

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