Food for thought (and for debunking food milers)

There’s a great piece at Reasonline, an article from Reason magazine headed “The Food Miles Mistake” and sub-headed “Saving the planet by eating New Zealand apples”.

It challenges the notion promoted by numb-nuts in the muesli mob and like-minded activists that eating local foods should be a moral obligation because locally produced foods (they insist) are better for the planet than foods shipped thousands of miles across oceans and continents.

According to these activists, as the article explains, shipping foods over long distances results in the unnecessary emission of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. This concern has given rise to the concept of “food miles,” that is, the distance food travels from farm to plate.

In their recent policy primer for the Mercatus Center at George University, however, economic geographer Pierre Desrochers and economic consultant Hiroko Shimizu challenge the notion that food miles are a good sustainability indicator.

As Desrochers and Shimizu point out, the food trade has been historically driven by urbanization. As agriculture became more efficient, people were liberated from farms and able to develop other skills that helped raise general living standards.

People freed from having to scrabble for food, for instance, could work in factories, write software, or become physicians. Modernization is a process in which people get further and further away from the farm.

Modern technologies like canning and refrigeration made it possible to extend the food trade from staple grains and spices to fruits, vegetables, and meats. As a result, world trade in fruits and vegetables—fresh and processed—doubled in the 1980s and increased by 30 percent between 1990 and 2001.

The article inevitably gets into the economics of all this (fruits and vegetables accounted for 22 percent of the exports of developing economies in 2001) then tackles the carbon emissions baloney –

Desrochers and Shimizu cite a comprehensive study done by the United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which reported that 82 percent of food miles were generated within the U.K. Consumer shopping trips accounted for 48 percent and trucking for 31 percent of British food miles. Air freight amounted to less than 1 percent of food miles. In total, food transportation accounted for only 1.8 percent of Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions.

In the United States, a 2007 analysis found that transporting food from producers to retailers accounted for only 4 percent of greenhouse emissions related to food. According to a 2000 study, agriculture was responsible for 7.7 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In that study, food transport accounted for 14 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, which means that food transport is responsible for about 1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Then it tackles the food miles advocates head on, saying they

fail to grasp the simple idea that food should be grown where it is most economically advantageous to do so. Relevant advantages consist of various combinations of soil, climate, labor, capital, and other factors.

It is possible to grow bananas in Iceland, but Costa Rica really has the better climate for that activity.

Transporting food is just one relatively small cost of providing modern consumers with their daily bread, meat, cheese, and veggies. Desrochers and Shimizu argue that concentrating agricultural production in the most favorable regions is the best way to minimize human impacts on the environment.

The New Zealand apple industry gets a positive plug –

Local food production does not always produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the 2005 DEFRA study found that British tomato growers emit 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of tomatoes grown compared to 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of Spanish tomatoes.

The difference is British tomatoes are produced in heated greenhouses.

Another study found that cold storage of British apples produced more carbon dioxide than shipping New Zealand apples by sea to London. In addition, U.K. dairy farmers use twice as much energy to produce a metric ton of milk solids than do New Zealand farmers.

Other researchers have determined that Kenyan cut rose growers emit 6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per 12,000 roses compared to the 35 tons of carbon dioxide emitted by their Dutch competitors. Kenyan roses grow in sunny fields whereas Dutch roses grow in heated greenhouses.

Reason is a monthly print magazine of “free minds and free markets.” Its website says

it covers politics, culture, and ideas through a provocative mix of news, analysis, commentary, and reviews. Reason provides a refreshing alternative to right-wing and left-wing opinion magazines by making a principled case for liberty and individual choice in all areas of human activity.

Reason Online is updated daily with articles and columns on current developments in politics and culture. It also contains the full text of past issues of the print edition of Reason.

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