Food Miles Are Not Black and White

20071214-food-miles.jpgFinancial Times contributor Sarah Murray weighs in on the "food miles" diet. Murray, the author of Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat, writes:

The "food miles" diet is a neat concept. The trouble is, the distance food is transported is not necessarily an accurate measure of its environmental impact.

Her analysis is noteworthy for its clearheadedness.

She points out that "it's not where your potato chips come from. It's how they're made."

And goes on:

Obviously, calculating the carbon footprint of food is an extraordinarily tricky business. But only when we understand a food’s energy use throughout its life cycle from seed to kitchen can we make intelligent decisions on where to start on cutting the greenhouse gas it generates.

She then cites the hypothetical example:

Local food purchases, say locavores, also support local farmers. True enough. But it depends of your perspective as to what constitutes a local farmer. Should we not consider supporting an African farmer for whom supplying Western markets with produce has provided a vital source of income--and who, by the way, often farms in a way that produces far fewer emissions than the typical American farmer.

Her conclusion is unusually thoughtful:

The “food miles” concept has helped raise awareness of the environmental impact of one aspect of our daily lives: eating. Yet the potato chips example demonstrates that greening our food supply means we have to think more creatively. The danger of going for the easy target of transportation is that we focus too narrowly and miss the bigger picture.

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