Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Food Miles Mistake

My favorite magazine, "Reason", has written a good article on why the concept of food miles is flawed.
So just how much carbon dioxide is emitted by transporting food from farm to fork? 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.

Food miles advocates 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.

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.

Entire article here.

I sometimes feel as our entire society has suspended rational thought when it come to the environment. People grasp at poorly thought out ideas and then take them as gospel. I am finding it dreadfully difficult to keep Ben and Shira from believing some of the environmental nonsense that abounds today. I thought that being homeschooled would help. I suppose in a way it does, but every outside activity they do is full of this poorly thought out, environmental gospels.

I am now on the look out for a book/program/blog/anything that can help me teach young children how to question everything they read/hear. It's tough because young children are genetically programmed to believe what their elders teach them. Our poor children have mom and dad teaching them one thing and the masses of humanity teaching them something else.

Shira asked me a question the other day that made me realize that she's been reading "Reason". This is good. I leave copies in the bathrooms and she and Ben are obviously picking them up. It's been great for their reading skills. Most of the topics are too complex for them to understand at age 7, but it does give me good starting points for discussions.


christinemm said...


When the word 'green' is mentioned it seems all rational thought goes out the window.

I fear that good things about 'green living' will fall by the wayside when this is revealed to be a 'fad' or 'trend'.

I have been doing some 'green living' things since the early 1990s when it was "uncool" and "weird". Yet now me, who does a bunch of things, not just talks about it, gets criticized each time I step out from the 'accepted thing'. For example a number of people don't like that we buy spring water in bottles to drink in the car and when 'out in the world'. The fact of the matter is if we bought those stainless steel water bottles we'd always be empty as we drink a LOT of water.

I have been reading "Facts Not Fear" however it is now out of print and has been critizied by the left and by environmental people as not being accurate. I highly recommend starting with that book.

I also feel that every time the kids take an outside class they are exposed. I have a story about the wolf conservation place that maybe I will blog. (A HS field trip we went on.)

"The truth doesn't matter if it pushes the agenda" is what my husband always says--but we both disagree with it---but that is what we feel others think.

Also some HS kids we know say wrong facts when the kids are just playing or visiting my home. So some are being taught wrong info and propaganda by well-intentioned parents. Also once more stuff came out of the mouths of babes when my DH was teaching a HS stock market class.

The best we can do is keep talking about our analysis and how to think.

I bought "Fallacy Detective" but it is for grades 7 and up and have not read it yet to see if I want to use it. Not sure why but many Christians use it, not sure if it is religious in nature or what. Also "The Thinking Toolbox" is the sequel.

Can't find much for the younger set, to teach them with.

I have a story from yesterday of my 11 year old exhibiting thinking skills that I might blog. I snapped a photo of him in action and hope to put that in the blog post.

Hope you have been well!!

Cerwydwyn said...

I think the point of buying local is to do so when it makes sense--like buy Virginia apples now, NC peaches in July, etc. Of course there are people who take every idea too far but the impulse behind eating locally is to eat locally *and* sensibly.
Also, much of the greenhouse gas produced by food production is left in the farm field. I have no statistics, nor do I have any faith in statistics, but I can tell you from looking out my window that the hours of tractor time, airplanes zooming and dropping chemicals, etc. must far exceed any time I spend going to the grocery store. I mean, hour for hour, their time on one field far exceeds my annual drive time to the grocery store. So focusing the greenhouse emission/Mileage study on freight and leaving out on-farm emissions is a huge hole in the math.
As to teaching your kids how to think critically--you're doing it. There isn't a program for everything and some things must grow organically (hehe) from real life ;-) How can they *not* question when they're growing up in your household? You ARE the program you seek.

Anonymous said...

That article had some good points, but some were silly IMO. I think the idea of eating locally means you don't eat bananas if you live in Costa Rica. I am also concerned about such a centralized food system that occurs when you don't get local foods. It's very vulnerable to threats--bioterrorism and any disease/pest that can wipe everything out, because it's too centralized. Less centralized may be less efficient but safer long term.

The thing is, people working for local foods don't get much benefit (local farmers who do well don't do so well, it just means they don't need second jobs!), so their hearts are in the right place. A company like Dole has a lot of stake in the current food system.