Over the past three years Slate, Forbes, the Hudson Institute, the British press and even Oxfam have all taken aim at food miles as a way of determining ethical eating. Does the much-quoted (and now much-criticized) 1,500-mile traveling head of broccoli really mean anything awful, if it’s shipped with hundreds of other heads? (Let’s see: 1,500 miles divided by 150 heads equals 10 miles per head.) Does a hothouse-grown green bean from Britain use more resources than an African bean shipped to Queen Elizabeth’s table? (Oxfam says it does, and argues that locally-prejudiced Brits are depriving hard-driven African farmers of their livelihood, to boot.)
Given the relatively limited amount of produce my favorite Southern Indiana farmer sells at the Frankfort Avenue farmers’ market in Louisville, is Mr. Jackson using more gasoline traveling 25 miles to town to sell, than a California agribusiness would to ship its larger amount of produce two-thirds of the way across the country? (In this case I rather doubt it, but on a bad selling day it’s possible.)
Food miles are too simplistic a number for comparison, say the critics, when we use more energy producing and processing our food, and even cooking it at home, than we do transporting it. Fair enough. But the number they would advise we use as a replacement, while fascinating to contemplate, is very difficult to compute.
In fact it’s impossible, short of a study. It’s a “life cycle assessment” or LCA, and what an LCA does is give that beef stew you just pulled out of the oven a full carbon-emitting physical. It estimates the carbon used for transportation, water use, harvesting methods, feed and fertilizer use, pesticides, cooking, drying or storing all ingredients, plus disposal of packaging and leftovers, climactic conditions and more–with a little credit for carbon absorbed through photosynthesis.
I just can just imagine Mr. Jackson’s face at the farmers’ market, if I were to ask him for an LCA on his (excellent) kale and apples.
So that leaves me asking instead: What I am supposed to do with this data improvement? After all, I don’t shop with a parliament of owlish grad students. My helpers are the sort that are glued to the gum display in the candy aisle, and will only relunctantly leave it. As we wonder about the LCA for our milk, we are reminded that modern meal-making is remarkably complicated, carbonly-speaking, once we get away from our own harvesting.
In that case, what is the point of eating local—or eating local food more often, which is generally what we mean? Is it really just an easily palatable upper-middle-class sop to political correctness? Or are we actually feeding something besides our own ego and gluttony?
If we aren’t just buying homegrown haricots verts out of season, then I say we are. If we are handling food more like our grandmother did, and less like a queen, then local food may well have the edge on carbon savings. But it’s also true that locavoracity is spurred by many things besides fewer transport miles. It means retaining cultural memory, of how to cook and eat regional foods (in my case that’s burgoo, beaten biscuits, old ham, corn pudding, soup beans, cooked-to-death green beans, sorghum, chess pie, stack cake, and watermelon slices sprinkled with salt). It means remembering how to grow food and raise meat here, on this ground in this state, where there is plenty of variety in soil, water and temperature. And it means buttressing a local and regional food network, which puts people to work, puts farmland to its best use, and gives us a sourcing hedge against an uncertain future, when there may be less gas for transporting meat from Nebraska and fruit from California.
The criticism of food miles as simplistic has merit, and I will listen to it, but I also wince when I hear the word “efficiency.” Efficiency is a word better suited to machines than to living things, and so often it is the idol of faceless markets that tend to treat meat as if it were a widget, and not a sentinent animal, and soil and energy as though they were bottomless resources. Nor are efficiencies perfectly efficient, either; they always have a trade-off. And we typically use them to argue for big solutions, when I am convinced what we need are a myriad of small solutions.
The real question we have to ask about our food is: What kind of inefficiencies are we willing to tolerate? Do we let a field lie fallow or fertilize it? Do we grow tomatoes farther apart and save water, or closer together and save ground and weeding? Do we finish calves in a giant lot that saves sourcing time, transport costs and space, or on multiple farms that spare us waste lagoons, overused antibiotics and animal misery? One kind of gain here generally creates a loss over there.
The fact is that a viable, safe and stress-resistant food economy requires the inefficiencies we are least likely to tolerate, these days–in seasonal availability, say, or time, and probably amount (though much of our farmland is underfarmed). Certainly any retailer will tell you it’s easier and more efficient to source all your eggs from one big basket. But then anyone who’s run his own business will tell you to diversify your clients and your sources–because you never know.
Maybe we will not live to see the energy boom fall, but surely we should give some thought to worst cases. If the time-and-space efficiencies of large-scale farming become harder to maintain in the years ahead, then a local patchwork of season-bound farmers may be necessary to our ability not just to eat well, but to eat. In the meantime, these farmers are feeding their neighbors, with all the relationships and recycling of local dollars and pure pleasure of eating that can involve.
Many factors go into our decisions about food, among them cost, availability, tradition, taste and more. People have to make their own calls given their own situations. But I want to eat in such a way as promotes the health, resilience, community ties and economy of what’s nearest by—my family and friends and neighbors first, my state and region next, my country after that, the world last. I wish Mexican farmers and New Zealand herders all good things, but I not only feel but ethically I have more responsibility towards Mr. Jackson in Indiana. The concentric rings of moral responsibility Thomas Fleming writes about in The Politics of Human Nature apply to eating as much as to any other act. And they enable us to sit down to dinner without agonizing.