Saturday, March 10, 2007

Food Miles

It seems obvious. If we buy food that is grown locally, we can help combat global warming. This is the concept of "food miles" - surely food flown or even shipped around the world must contribute far more to carbon emissions than food grown nearby? I believe it's not as simple as that. For instance, there are two Farmers' Markets held on Saturdays within driving distance from my home. The food is locally grown - more or less - after all the farms are not within the city boundaries, but on the outskirts. The stalls are small. So each grower is driving perhaps 30 km in a small car or van to bring their produce to the market. And if I shop there, it is a longer drive than my nearest supermarket, which is just around the corner. Or even a no-so-close supermarket which I can stop at on my way home from work. I am fairly sure that each kilogram of produce sold at the Farmers Market is responsible for more carbon emissions than the equivalent produce sold at the supermarket - even though the latter may be driven several hundred kilometres to get there. It's the economies of scale - moving a large quantity of produce in a large truck to a supermarket closer to the target market.

I worry about what will happen to New Zealand if the concept of food miles catches on. Or if long-range tourism declines due to fears of global warming. It's what our economy relies on. So I was interested to read some figures in this article. (If you are interested, bookmark it. In the interests of selling magazines, the full text of the main feature articles are not available on line for a few weeks after the issue date). New Zealand farmers are not subsidised, unlike farmers in the European Union and other countries. They have to be efficient to survive. Apparently, in most cases, less total energy is used to produce food in New Zealand and ship it to the other side of the world than to produce it and sell it locally. Another interesting statistic was that half of all the energy used in transporting food is used in the journey from the supermarket to home. To reduce emissions you could choose the locally grown product, or you could combine your shopping list with your neighbour's and cut your trips to the supermarket in half for exactly the same effect. Or you could make sure to stock your pantry well, reducing your number of trips.

You can use a simplistic measure of emissions like food miles. Or you can investigate the true measure by researching all the emissions produced in the lifetime of the product. Unfortunately this takes a lot of research, so it is heartening to see that the UK supermarket chain Tescos plans to do it for us, and label goods sold in their shops with information on their total carbon footprint.

I hope that the world will keep buying our produce, and keep visiting us. Or will New Zealanders become an endangered species, starving at the bottom of the world? Perhaps then the World Wildlife Fund will mount a rescue campaign. One thing is for sure - we can't all emigrate back to Britain.


utenzi said...

I don't know about others, Catherine, but I almost never make a special trip to get groceries. I just stop on my way to or from work. I read Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma recently and he discussed the economics of food production quite a bit though only touched on carbon use in transporting food.

Michele sent me over, Catherine. Happy weekend!

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of the 100 mile diet? It's similiar in making a committment to using local food. Barbara Kingsolver was in out town last fall and spoke about it. Michele sent me.

Catherine said...

Of course the ultimate in low food miles is growing the food in your own garden. Probably the ideal, but not many have the space to grow enough for all their needs. I've read some of Barbara Kingsolver's books on the subject - the novel "Prodigal Summer" touches on some of the issues, and she also has a book of essays out. She is very convincing, I will admit. But in areas with harsh winters, the animals spend a lot of time indoors in heated barns, whereas in New Zealand they live outdoors all year round. There are lots of other hidden factors besides food miles.

Anonymous said...

What an odd situation you mention about the farmers in New Zealand. It doesn't seem possible that it could work out like that!
I live in a rural area & do support my local farmers market but I'm also not adverse to driving 60 miles out of my way to a larger city just for a change of scenery (only about once every 6 months or so though)The oddest thing is in this city they have a farmers market every weekend & I often see quite a few of the same farmers there as at the nearest local farmers market!
Here from Micheles.

Shephard said...

New Zealand is so extraordinarily beautiful.. I can't imagein a time in the future when people don't love visiting there. :)

Michele says hello!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Thanks for visiting West of Mars, Catherine; you're raising a point I'd wondered about -- well, not about New Zeland, but about food miles in general.

I think we have some tough choices ahead of us...

Princess said...

Wow, what an interesting post! I support my local farm growers. Its not too far, but its further then the 20 supermarkets surrounding me!

One day i hope to visit New Zealand. It seems so beautiful, as are all the people!

Have a good weekend!

Ps. Michele says hi! :D

~M~ said...

Hi Michelle sent me. Wow! What an interesting concept... food miles. I live on Long Island, New York, USA and there are four grocery stores just about a mile from where I live. But in the summers there are also numerous roadside stand and farmer's markets. Long Island is such a small but populous area, I'm not sure if there is a right answer to the food miles equation.

rashbre said...

Maybe someone else has already thought of it, but one could invent a "Total Cost of Consumption" metric, which is a little more sophisticated than just a food mile.

To your point, a large ship carrying automobiles and lots of (er..) vegetables, may still create a lower total cost of consumption per (er..) carrot than say a locally grown product that has sub optimal transport.

I expect one could plot carrot miles in some way against shared cost rather than just say a carrot has travelled 6 miles or 25,000 miles to the salad bowl.

This needs some work, but I expect you can catch my drift.


Tia said...

but maybe NZ housing would finally become more affordable?....... Just kidding, of course.

Interesting thoughts and points.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I think rashbre has a point about the total cost of production calculation, which is fairer than strict food miles. I rarely make special trips to go shopping and wehen I do i generally walk, getting a bus back if its too far and I'm too laden. I try to buy produce that is grown in Scotland, or UK. But at the same time I try to weigh up the whole environmental cost - but then we reeally need more information on all that.

I think the arguments all may become irrelvant to us if climate change becomes as catastrophic as it may do. We'll all be endangered then.