When 70,000 kms is apparently closer than my backyard: foodmiles 101

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The phrase “food miles” has been bandied around a lot over the last 15 years or so. I had no idea of the type of fierce debate this concept has apparently raised. It just seemed like common sense to me, to support local food production and keep carbon emission used to store and transport food as low as possible.

According to various articles I have read, the “food miles” campaign has not gained a lot of traction in Australia. It has been labelled simplistic, protectionist and even anti-free trade.  It is “successfully rooted in a blind ideology about man’s contribution to global warming – a popular obsession” according to Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs. Food miles is nothing short of a greenie plot to stop economic growth, it would seem.

Two other considerations are what impact low “food miles” would have on third world economies and populations looking to raise themselves out of poverty by exporting food, and how  they would effect the worth of Australia’s international exports.

A study done of New Zealand lamb has become famous for showing that there is four times less CO2 emissions created by a NZ grown lamb than a lamb grown in the UK. Apples and onions produced in the UK were produced in hothouses heated by electricity, which also increased CO2 emissions at the production stage of the product.

As the average basket of food purchased by Australians has travelled over 70,000 kilometres before it gets to the local supermarket, I find it difficult to believe that food miles are not a significant contributor to greenhouse gases.

I understand that food takes energy and water to produce. CO2 emissions are produced at every stage of the food life cycle, from planting seeds to harvesting to processing to storage and to the place of sale.  But surely one of the issues of ‘food miles’ is not only should it be reasonably local, but also seasonal. It is pointless demanding tomatoes in the dead of winter that require hothouse production, even of they are local. The UK’s Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs has not unsurprisingly found that it is more energy-efficient to import tomatoes by road than growing them in a hothouse. It is simple. People: if they are not in season, don’t eat them.

Of course, eating seasonal, local food means one’s eating choices are restricted to fruits and vegetables in season. Well, how dreadful. Fancy us in the Western world having to eat what is seasonal and come in line with the majority of the world’s population! We seem to think we have the right to eat tomatoes and apples and pineapples all year round. Why?

There are other arguments made against sticking to local food production which are many and varied and not all are created equal. One is that local food costs more, making fresh fruit and vegetables too expensive for some people.  I find this mildly astonishing. I buy from our local farmers’ market, and the plant produce there is cheaper than the supermarkets. The farmers bring the stuff there themselves, and sell it at stalls with low overheads. It is seasonal, grown locally, much of it is organic, and it is cheap. I don’t get how this is possibly creating more emissions.

The claim that sticking to local food can damage economies of developing countries which rely on food exports is a fair criticism. In our six month experiment, we agreed we would still use certain fair-trade products for this very reason.

As for the claim that low ‘food miles’ is a ruse to justify protectionism, I treat that with the contempt it deserves. I hadn’t even thought about it until I researched this. My understanding is that it makes local economies more resilient by protecting small farms, local jobs and local shops. I am not a fan of large corporations planting large monocultures, such as we see with canola. My understanding is that biodiversity is a much better protection against drought, pestilence, disease and locusts. Surely we don’t want the equivalent of the Irish potato famine again.

I have read any arguments against keeping food miles low which look at this particular problem. Many small holdings have been forced to sell  and their properties have been amalgamated into increasing large farms, increasing run by large corporations who not only control the growing of the crop, but also the storage, transport, processing and retail of products. Increasingly, food security appears to rest in the hands of large corporations.

Even growing our vegetables and fruit comes in for a serve.  A CSIRO expert claimed that “even home-grown vegetables, with ”zero food miles”, do not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint than those bought in the supermarket. “With my veggies, I drive to Bunnings to buy fertiliser, and I go away for the weekend and forget to water them, and in the end I only harvest a few things that I can actually eat. By contrast, big producers, who can invest in the latest energy-efficient, water-efficient technology, and make use of all the parts of food, can be much more efficient,”’ he says.

Are you serious, Mister Expert?  Are you really saying that driving to the nursery and back with some seedlings and soil equals the emissions of thousands of miles of food being trucked? Oh, please. And what I don’t eat, my worms or chooks do. So nothing is wasted here either. And I use rainwater that is captured free off our roof, which costs nothing. I can’t believe that you think my garden may emit more CO2.

We are now in an era where easily accessible fossil fuels are over. As oil becomes scarcer, local production of food is going to become a necessity, not a luxury. Communities need to become more self reliant in a number of ways.

Maybe the concept of ‘food miles’ is overly simplistic – but increased local food production is going to be the reality in the future. The real  question may therefore be whether we are forced to adopt that course out of desperation, or whether we plan for and embrace the reality of global warming and diminishing oil. 

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