Think Global, Eat Global?

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As food prices, fuel costs and global warming dominate the headlines, “locavores” have been held up as the new eco-warriors. These hardy souls eschew food that isn’t produced nearby, and count “food miles” rather than calories. But while food miles are something we need to consider, the complex realities of modern food systems mean that concentrating on them alone can actually work against the principles we’re trying to uphold.

Our meals cover thousands of kilometres in their journeys from the paddock to the plate. In Australia, the contents of a typical supermarket food basket have clocked up 70,803 kilometres, equivalent to flitting nearly twice around the circumference of the Earth.

The term food miles — the distance food travels from producers through processors and retailers to consumers — is used to highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production and is the key concept in the locavore movement.

The movement began in 2005 after a Canadian couple, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, decided to reduce the food miles in their lives and committed to becoming locavores, surviving for a year only on produce that was grown near their home in Vancouver. Thus the “100 Mile Diet” was born. The idea took off and there is now a 100 Mile Café in Melbourne. 100 Mile Dieters have sprung up all over the globe, with a 10 Mile Diet subgroup for the truly hardcore.

The New Oxford American Dictionary even dubbed “locavore” the 2007 word of the year, stating that it was the word that best reflects “the ethos of the year” and has “lasting potential as a word of cultural significance and use”.

The reasons for eating only locally produced food appear compelling: we can reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in transporting food; we can support and get to know our local farmers and businesses; we can eat healthier, fresher and better tasting food and we can have better food security if we don’t have to rely on foreign, potentially unstable, trade partners for such a basic need.

It sounds simple, but what does “local” really mean? For the 100 milers, it is obvious, but so too is the arbitrary nature of their definition. Does local mean that the livestock are only fed on locally produced feed and pellets? That only locally produced pesticides are used? Rather than an objective label, local seems to be a state of mind, and possibly not a very logical one.

The issue of food security is emotionally charged and can lead to irrational policy decisions, according to Saul Eslake, chief economist with the ANZ.

“The use of terms like ‘food security’ and ‘food miles’ is dangerous because it encourages policies which are damaging and counter-productive, and more than likely to be a cover for protectionism,” said Eslake.

“‘Food security’ would be far better served by policies which allowed for freer trade in agricultural commodities between countries; removed distortions that encourage the diversion of land and other resources from food production into economically inefficient and environmentally damaging biofuels production; and discouraged the application of advances in scientific knowledge, most notably the irrational opposition to the use of genetically-modified crops,” he said.

While these are arguments that we’re used to hearing from the kinds of neoliberal sources that frequently discount the concerns of people keen to make ethical and environmental eating choices, they do raise the wider issue of the complex role of trade in the food security issue. Trade can tie countries together as much as food inter-reliance can expose or compromise them — it depends more on how these relationships are arranged. Likewise, while many people interested in ethical and sustainable eating are aware of the ways “free trade” can lead to some devastating environmental and economic outcomes, there are nevertheless many cases where truly free trade can be a more sustainable option than local production.

Moreover, as Sophie Gaballa, from the environmental group Ceres in Victoria, warns, assessing the sustainability of food production is a complex issue.

“Taking into consideration how far our food travels is only part of the food miles story. To really assess the environmental impact of food items you need to also look at how they are processed and packaged to get a more complete picture of the energy footprint of food systems,” said Gaballa.

According to Christopher Zinn of the Australian Consumers Association, the concept of food miles is so fraught with difficulties that it has to be seen as a starting point for looking at issues of sustainability, not as a solution.

“It has been presented as a bit of a feel good concept, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have merit in terms of making people think about where their food comes from, but when you try to quantify the food miles, it becomes so qualified as to be unwieldy,” he said.

For example, if you try to work out the food miles on a packet of muesli, which might have more than a dozen separate ingredients, you need to include the journeys made by each ingredient as it travels from producer to processor to retailer, and then to consumer; and that is without taking into account the energy and environmental aspects of production.

A commonly ignored element is the final journey of the food. “The last 10 kilometres can be the most intensive,” said Zinn. Especially if you drive around chasing local products from a variety of sources.

“There is a bit of an Antipodean versus European angle to the debate too,” said Zinn. “If food miles are the sole factor considered it could have export ramifications for Australia and New Zealand. Yet even with the transport considered, we would have less of a carbon footprint than many European producers because we don’t have to grow vegetables in heated greenhouses, or keep livestock indoors.”

Zinn’s claims are supported by researchers at New Zealand’s Lincoln University who conducted a life-cycle analysis of a range of products. Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the scientists included water use; harvesting techniques; fertiliser outlays; renewable energy applications; means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used); the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis; disposal of packaging; storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, they found that it is four times more energy-efficient for British consumers to buy lamb raised on New Zealand’s open pastures and shipped almost 18,000 kilometres by boat to Britain than to buy local lamb, not least because poorer British pastures require intensive farming.

Likewise, some places aren’t naturally warm enough to grow bananas sustainably, or even wheat suitable for bread. Others are too dry for many crops. Gaballa says that Australian rice is a case in point. While the consumption of domestic rice in Melbourne carries comparatively low food mileage (381 kilometres), rice production, with its high water requirements, is unsuited to the Riverina region where it is grown in Australia.

Then there are other factors beyond resource use which complicate the question. Ethical consumers who want free range chickens or eggs need access to those grown beyond the dreadful battery cages of the outer suburbs. If local versus non-local means the difference between animal cruelty or more humane farming, then food miles can pale into insignificance.

The issue becomes even more complicated when consumers have to consider “organic” and “fair trade” labels as part of their food choice. Although Australia has had national standards for organic products since 1992, these are only enforced for export products and “organic” often seems to be a fuzzy marketing term suggesting an idyllic little family producer, in contrast to an impersonal agribusiness farm.

In Europe, much of the organic produce is imported from African countries, so as well as food miles, consumers have to consider whether importing such produce exploits cheap labour in an unfair market or provides a path out of poverty for farming communities.

So what else can we do?

We can work on that final 10 kilometres of the food miles. Professor Jules Pretty, a food policy analyst at the University of Essex, said that if car shopping trips were replaced using sustainable transport, such as bus, train, walking or cycling, the environmental and congestion costs in the UK alone would fall by $2.6 billion a year.

We can grow some of our own food, whether it’s a garden full of fruit trees and vegie beds or a couple of pots of lettuce or tomatoes on the window sill.

We can make the most of the free food that is in our neighbourhoods. As a small example, within cycling distance of my home I can find a number of prolific mulberry trees on public land; blackberry bushes beside the railway line and highway; olive and fig trees along the banks of the river; loquat or citrus trees hanging over fences with excess fruit in the public domain; and grassy banks with nasturtiums and dandelions which can be added to salads (if the grass hasn’t been sprayed with herbicide).

We can cut down on meat, especially red meat, and dairy products. These products account for five to ten times more emissions than nutritionally equivalent grain and nut foods.

We can re-embrace seasonality and control the urge for instant gratification. We could take pleasure in the anticipation of the first peaches and cherries appearing just before Christmas — not expect them to be available all year round.

And finally, we can find out whether our proposed purchases are local, organic or fair trade, so that at least we are making informed choices. As Jules Pretty said: “The most political act we do on a daily basis is to eat, as our actions affect farms, landscapes and food businesses. These choices matter enormously.”

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