Food Miles: Spinning Our Wheels?

Resolved: a host of academic, journalistic, and community-based work has increased its focus in recent years on the matter of local food. In no way could I summarize the breadth of that work. But I am frequently surprised to find the same conversations going on, over and over again. For example, just this week there was yet another article asking if fewer food miles are really better. I was astounded that the author wrote the story--in which he assumed that carbon emissions were the measure of a food system's environmental value--and that the Salon editors gave it the go-ahead, because it repeats much of what has already been written about the subject. Many times. Are we spinning our wheels?

Food Miles, the concept of measuring the distance from farm to fork, is one subject within the pantheon of local food discussions. It is a subset of the broader local food conversation. The term was coined in the 1990s and the technological and commercial imperatives that have helped shape its existence go back at least to the refrigerated rail car in the 1800s, but the term has become far more publicly visible in the past three or so years. In that recent rise to public visibility it has also become a source of tension and counter-critique. ('The Food Miles concept is good'; 'no, no, it's bad'; 'awww come on, it's good'; and so forth.)

The premise of the Food Miles concept was/is to offer a way for consumers to gauge their distance from their food sources. It was a way to help people envision their connections to the land (or the complex infrastructure that fits between them and the land, leading to the perception that they/we are not connected). The concept's most recent rise to prominence in public debate has been seen it become part of energy efficiency discussions -- and this has it that "buying local" (as a move for fewer food miles would recommend) is narrowly and solely about reducing carbon emissions.

Last summer, James McWilliams summarized these issues in a New York Times op-ed. A few posts at this blog (like this one, and this one, and this one) sought to get past the limitations of a carbon-only discussion, to promote instead one of environmental values and not simply carbon emissions. This, to me, seemed more in keeping with the purpose of discussing localism and the possibility of non-centralized industrial food chains. Keeping it a debate about value propositions creates a conversation that differs from that given by a narrow and instrumental debate about carbon accounting. None of that is to say (and I've become more aware that these caveats are necessary on blogs) that carbon emissions are not important. Certainly they are. But discussing Food Miles as an issue of carbon emissions *alone* reduces the many reasons--cultural and environmental--one would seek to promote local food systems. While the earlier years of recent attention to localism and food miles did not do keep it at the level of carbon, numerous published studies of late have.

The Food Miles issues also spawned an academic and community-based project I began last year to build a map of local foodsheds that incorporated both qualitative and quantitative elements; our premise was that to argue about the relationship of energy consumption and local food required actual data, not just abstractions. We wanted to work towards addressing the energy-agriculture connection so as to improve it, not so as to claim that it's worthless. I feel that even writing that is a measure of wheel-spinning. I'm just repeating what many others have already said.

Take Craig Sewell, for example. He is a chef, caterer, cooking teacher, and owner operator of A Cook's Cafe in Annapolis, MD. He's said all of this stuff too, and he's the real deal. Last July, a recent story at Chesapeake Foodie says, he:

began sourcing local farms to supply his cafe. Driven by a realization that we must learn to live and eat differently, for our own sakes as well as the earth's, he sought out local farmers and met with them personally. "What I that eating local is about more than just our menus -- it's about supporting our farmers, our local economy, and our health."

One consequence of this new identity as a local food practitioner is his involvement beyond simply food avenues, but also into developing stronger local economic systems to make those local products viable -- such as with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).

Which is to say, you don't have read about the issue of localism and food miles from journalists and academics. Find actual practitioners. Beyond the rhetoric, many people--local food advocates, chefs, farmers, growers, consumers--are working to reconfigure the dominant food production, distribution, and consumption system. From Joel Salatin and his sourcing of the Charlottesville Chipotle restaurant to farm-to-school programs to local caterers, grocery stores, and chefs.

Localism is thus a challenge that people are taking up. And now, to continue with my poorly chosen automotive metaphors, the rubber is hitting the road. Food Miles as a useful rubric, rather than caught under the wheel of academic theorizing or journalistic posturing, is also something to keep an eye on.

As it goes.

Before I move on, though, and despite urging this move beyond the same ole story, I offer below a brief canvas of the Food Miles discussion pointing to sources from the mainstream media, from university research, and from peer-reviewed academic journals. This is but a sampling from a larger bibliography, but it helps me keep tabs and hold the span of debate in view.

Mainstream sources:

University researchers and agro-research centers:

Academic, peer-reviewed articles:

(Social science)

(Environmental science)


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