“Food miles” are an environmental myth


This is not what New Mexico grapevines look like in February

Buying locally as measured in “food miles” – the distance between where food is grown and where it is sold – is a poor indicator of a product’s impact on the environment and is thus not a valid way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is the conclusion of an Economic Note published by the Montreal Economic Institute and prepared by Pierre Desrochers, associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga, in collaboration with Hiroko Shimizu, a private consultant.

“There are perfectly legitimate reasons for consumers to make the personal choice of buying locally grown food if, for example, they find products from local farms to be superior in quality or freshness,” Prof. Desrochers stated. “On the other hand, the supposed environmental benefits of buying locally just aren’t there.”

Rather than looking only at the distance between the place of production and the grocery store, it is preferable to ensure that food is produced as efficiently as possible in the most appropriate places, even when they are far away. The researchers point to an American study showing that production is responsible for 83% of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, whereas transportation accounts for only 11% of total emissions…

A full assessment of food’s environmental impact must also take account of transportation to its final destination in the consumer’s home. The many trips by car to bring home small volumes of food, as done by each family, have a relatively significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Cars are less efficient than the huge ships or airplanes that move food from where it is grown to where it will be sold. Shipping enormous quantities of food requires far less energy per apple or lamb chop, even if the distance is much greater.

The report, Will Buying Food Locally Save the Planet?, is over here in a .pdf.

Having spent a truly boring portion of my life sorting out logistics and traffic management, none of this is a surprise. I only hope some of those who approach ecology as a religion – learn better.

7 thoughts on ““Food miles” are an environmental myth

  1. zorki says:

    Hunger and poverty are amazing dimensions of experience, people could not care less where food comes from as long as they can get it. These statistics are for the wealthy who can pick and choose their culinary diets. Take your statistics to Haiti, and many of the global countries living in dire poverty and hardship, we are certain they will listen, that is if you get out alive or are eaten, and if that happens, who will give us the statistics.

  2. Mr. Fusion says:

    people could not care less where food comes from as long as they can get it.

    We are not wealthy yet we do care. When in season, we buy locally whenever possible. Seldom do we make special trips unless we can bike it; usually it is hitting the road side markets. And yes, you can taste the difference.

    Even locally, many types of food aren’t grown or their season is too short for fresh. In the off season, we realize fresh has to be imported.

      • Cinaedh says:

        The good news is, there isn’t an air conditioner or an elevator for 500 miles in any direction.

        Hardly any humans, either…

        • moss says:

          Hope you don’t have to fight bears for the blueberries.

          I buy a pint of the heavenly critters almost every week – this time of year – from Chile.

          • Cinaedh says:

            I learned long ago, humans concede blueberries to bears. Unarmed humans, outside of hunting season anyway.

            Besides, it’s only fair, after we finally came to our senses and evicted them all out of the dump.

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