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Food That Travels Well

James E. McWilliams, New York Times
The term “food miles” — how far food has traveled before you buy it — has entered the enlightened lexicon.

…But is reducing food miles necessarily good for the environment? Researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand, no doubt responding to Europe’s push for “food miles labeling,” recently published a study challenging the premise that more food miles automatically mean greater fossil fuel consumption. Other scientific studies have undertaken similar investigations. According to this peer-reviewed research, compelling evidence suggests that there is more — or less — to food miles than meets the eye.

It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call “factor inputs and externalities” — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer 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, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

These life-cycle measurements are causing environmentalists worldwide to rethink the logic of food miles.

…”Eat local” advocates — a passionate cohort of which I am one — are bound to interpret these findings as a threat. We shouldn’t. Not only do life cycle analyses offer genuine opportunities for environmentally efficient food production, but they also address several problems inherent in the eat-local philosophy.

Consider the most conspicuous ones: it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer.

Given these problems, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn’t we create development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

As concerned consumers and environmentalists, we must be prepared to seriously entertain these questions. We must also be prepared to accept that buying local is not necessarily beneficial for the environment. As much as this claim violates one of our most sacred assumptions, life cycle assessments offer far more valuable measurements to gauge the environmental impact of eating. While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts. We must accept the fact, in short, that distance is not the enemy of awareness.

James E. McWilliams is the author of “A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America” and a contributing writer for The Texas Observer.
(6 August 2007)
Contributor Carl Etnier writes:
Environmental life cycle assessment (LCA) can, indeed, reveal more about the environmental impact of food production than the simple measure of food miles. My response is to use LCA to look for other ways to reduce environmental impact while still trying to make sure food is raised as close to where it’s eaten as feasible. I see local food production as basic food security in an age of scarce oil. McWilliams calls himself an “eat local” advocate, but he is willing to toss out the “local” part and concentrate on more efficient transportation. That leaves all of us increasingly vulnerable to food shortages as a consequence of disruptions in oil supplies.

Several more criticisms of the McWilliams thesis:

  • He makes his arguments based on cheap fuel and fertilizer, not wise assumptions with peak oil and climate constraints on the horizon.

  • He seems to have missed the fact that large economic entities are the powerful players in the food business, and especially in long-distance systems. Local production, in contrast, tends to favor small farmers and businesses.
  • It is much easier to have knowledge and control one has over food produced locally, vs that produced on the other side of the globe. The FDA has trouble even monitoring the safety of imported food to the US. How could they or any agency reliably assess the environmental impact of food grown in China ?
  • It would be wise to making grand generalizations based on studies that may have cherry-picked results. The only study McWilliams mentions is from New Zealand researchers who may not be completely objective when it comes to exporting New Zealand mutton.
  • The number of people “obsessing over food miles” is miniscule. The dominant paradigm is still: factory farming – supermarkets – junk food – ignorance and unconcern about food miles.

…which isn’t to say the Life Cycle Analysis is not a useful tool.

Sharon Astyk weighs in with a whole column: Eat Local – REAL LOCAL.

A Truly African Green Revolution

Erica Barnett, WorldChanging
In a move that seems certain to spark controversy in agricultural and biotechnology circles, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana just announced that the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which he now heads, will not use genetically modified (GMO) seeds to fight the war on hunger in Africa; instead, AGRA will focus on creating new seed varieties from familiar local seeds using conventional breeding methods. AGRA’s commitment to local methods and materials is akin to the concept of food sovereignty, the idea that nations should be able to feed themselves, using native resources and techniques.

AGRA was established last year with a $150 million infusion from the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations. Its mission is to revitalize small-scale farming and improve the lives of African farmers (most of whom are women) while improving crop yields to alleviate the poverty that afflicts much of Africa. In addition to developing seeds, AGRA’s ambitious action plan includes fortifying soils depleted by poor agricultural practices
(6 August 2007)

Ethanol Is Feeding Hot Market for Farmland

Monica Davey, New York Times
While much of the nation worries about a slumping real estate market, people in Midwestern farm country are experiencing exactly the opposite. Take, for instance, the farm here – nearly 80 acres of corn and soybeans off a gravel road in a universe of corn and soybeans – that sold for $10,000 an acre at auction this spring, a price that astonished even the auctioneer.

“If they had seen that day, they would have never believed it,” Penny Layman said of her sister and brother-in-law, who paid $32,000 for the entire spread in 1962 and whose deaths led to the sale.

Skyrocketing farmland prices, particularly in states like Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, giddy with the promise of corn-based ethanol, are stirring new optimism among established farmers. But for younger farmers, already rare in this graying profession, and for small farmers with dreams of expanding and grabbing a piece of the ethanol craze, the news is oddly grim. The higher prices feel out of reach.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Paul Burrs, who farms about 400 acres near Dixon, Ill., and says he regularly bids on new farmland in the hopes of renting it. Mostly, he said, he loses out to higher bidders. “I crunch the numbers and go as high as I can. But then that’s it. There’s nothing more I can do.”
(8 August 2007)

Urban farming’s time has come

Editorial, Times Colonist (Canada)
Oak Bay should revise anti-farming bylaw and welcome the era of community gardens

Oak Bay residents are no strangers to tight bylaw enforcement, but the community’s restrictions on urban farming are in urgent need of rewriting.

Paula Sobie and Martin Scaia started City Harvest in February, advertising on the Internet for people who wanted to use all or part of their property for an urban garden.

In return, the homeowner would receive a portion of the organic vegetables, while the couple would sell the rest at markets, to restaurants and through the Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (SPUD) program.

But the couple ran afoul of an Oak Bay bylaw that forbids growing plants for sale, introduced in 2001 after the Beach Drive estate “Riffington” was given farm status because the owners sold more than $2,500 of plants annually from the property’s gardens. Farm status meant the property tax bill was slashed; Oak Bay council quickly moved to restrict urban farming and protect its tax base.

But that was before “sustainable living” became a more mainstream rallying cry among those concerned about the environment. Urban gardens and community farming have mushroomed in popularity.
(8 August 2007)
One of the biggest obstacles to sustainability is obsolete bylaws and zoning regulations. -BA