Do "Food Miles" Carry Us Farther From Sustainability?
We’ve been talking about and supporting local food for years here at Seventh Generation. The general assumption has always been that the closer to home our food is produced, the better it is for the atmosphere largely because it’s traveled a whole lot less to get to our plates and so has a much smaller carbon footprint. But lately this idea has been challenged, and perhaps rightfully so. Some people are saying that food miles aren’t the whole story where environmental impacts are concerned, and that food from far away may still have less impact on things like climate and environmental health than food grown virtually next door.
A recent article from the U.K.’s Guardian describes the situation well. For example, it points out that green beans flown in from Africa, where they were grown by farmers using manual tools and no chemical inputs have less impact that beans grown in the next county by a farm using diesel tractors and petroleum-based fertilizers—even after their plane ride is accounted for. Sometimes, it can be healthier for us all if our food does come from far away.
This is a piece of highly counterintuitive wisdom that’s more than a little hard to get your head around. But the real lesson here is that nothing is black and white, especially where the environment is concerned. We do ourselves more harm than good when we reduce the changes we need to make to overly simplistic ideas like “buy local” that then become our beacons on the path to sustainability. Because there’s usually more to any given story than can fit in a couple of words; often much more. Environmental issues are by their nature non-absolute. They’re filled with gray areas and trade-offs that aren’t always obvious and that quite often require something more in the way of contemplation before we act.
We should resist the temptation to reduce the challenges ahead to a series of easily digested slogans that then substitute for good decision-making. And a temptation it surely is in this complicated world of ours. I’d like nothing more than to have a few simple rules to live by. But that kind of approach is all too frequently a mistake because often what we initially think is the right think to do really isn’t, and when we skip a process of deliberation and just proceed to the soundbite, we never find what we truly need to know about the road ahead. Rules of thumb can be useful. It’s helpful to remember to “eat local,” and it’s often better for the planet despite the issue of food miles. But rather than train ourselves to remember the environment as a series of tag lines, we should train ourselves to think more openly and questioningly where our choices are concerned. We should be open to new and changing information, and always realize that the complete picture is rarely in view at any one time. We must learn to automatically look at all the angles we can see, judge each on its own merits, add up the pluses and minuses, and let the sum that follows be our guide. Anything less, and we’ll end up planting the wrong kind of beans on the wrong kind of world.