WASHINGTON The U.S. local food movement --
which used to be elite, expensive and mostly coastal -- has
gone mainstream, with a boost from environmentalists who reckon
that eating what grows nearby cuts down on global warming.
But do food miles -- the distance edibles travel from farm
to plate -- give an accurate gauge of environmental impact,
especially where greenhouse gas emissions are concerned?
"Food-miles are a great metaphor for looking at the
localness of food, the contrast between local and global food,
a way people can get an idea of where their food is coming
from," said Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold
Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
"They are not a reliable indicator of environmental
impact," Pirog said in a telephone interview. "What one would
want to do is look at your carbon footprint across a whole food
The problem with food-miles is that they don't take into
account the mode of transport, methods of production or the way
things are packaged, and all of these have their own distinct
impact on emissions of carbon dioxide, a climate-warming gas.
Take the case of the well-traveled Idaho potato and its
closer-to-home cousin from Maine. For a consumer on the U.S.
East Coast, the Maine potato seems the winner in the local food
But Maine potatoes get to market by long-haul truck while
Idahos go by train, a more energy-efficient mode of
transportation, so they have a smaller carbon footprint even
with a larger number of food-miles.
The example is easily transposed to Europe, Pirog said,
noting the relative environmental impacts for a Stockholm
consumer in tomatoes grown in a Swedish greenhouse compared
with field-ripened tomatoes imported by ship from Spain. The
Spanish tomatoes are more Earth-friendly.
FOOD, FUEL AND FREEWAYS
The idea of food-miles, or more properly food-kilometers,
began in Sweden and Britain, but Pirog and others at the
Leopold Center started looking into the matter in the United
States in 2001 in a paper called "Food, Fuel and Freeways,"
available online here
It is now so commonplace for Americans to opt for local
versus regional or national food supplies that sophisticates
feel free to make fun of the movement, as The New Yorker did in
its October 8 edition.
"We think it's terribly important that you meet the people
responsible for the food you're eating tonight," reads the
caption on a cartoon showing a pair of wary-looking diners,
surrounded by a smiling waitress and basket-bearing farm-folk
with their produce and livestock.
The United States came late to the local food movement,
except for high-end eateries that featured their offerings'
provenance as a selling point in the 1970s. Until then,
imported food was considered a status symbol, no matter what
condition it was in when it finally arrived at the table.
Before that, most Americans unthinkingly ate local food out
of simple necessity. If your great-grandmother wanted a tomato
in winter, she probably opened a home-canned jar rather than
picking an Israeli-raised specimen at the supermarket.
Another difficulty with the food-miles measurement is that
the most accurate versions of this calculation deal only with
produce, not with prepared foods that contain many ingredients
from many sources.
NOT JUST FOR GRANOLA BAR FOLKS
This is changing, Pirog said, reached outside a conference
on this issue in Portland, Oregon. Researchers in Europe and
Japan are leading the way in figuring out how to make these
complex calculations, and Pirog noted that Europe and Japan are
parties to the Kyoto Protocol which mandates reductions in
greenhouse gases. The United States is not.
The calculus is not always environmental; most locavores
say taste comes first, while some maintain locally produced
products are safer or more nutritious.
Others, like restaurateur Barry Eastman, say local
provisions make economic sense for the businesses that use them
and the farmers that raise them.
As the owner of Rudy's Tacos in Waterloo, Iowa, Eastman has
been seeking out local suppliers for a decade, with 70 percent
of his food produced in Iowa. This is not as obvious as it may
seem: while Iowa is dense with farm fields, most are planted
with commodity crops like soybeans and feed corn -- a
circumstance that makes parts of the state food deserts. Corn,
corn everywhere, but not an ear to eat, if you're a human.
"You'd be surprised at how many people want to know where
their food is coming from," Eastman said by telephone. "It's
not just the granola bar folks, everybody's starting to get
In his case, the primary driver was flavor, and he found
that local chickens made for a better-tasting taco than those
trucked in from Alabama in the same load with paper towels and
other restaurant staples. The Iowa poultry cost more per bird
but less overall because they were meatier, Eastman said.
Tim Schlitzer, executive director of the Food Routes
Network, which promotes a national "Buy Fresh, Buy Local"
consumer campaign, noted long-term reasons to encourage the
As commodity farming increases in the United States, some
regions can lose the ability to feed themselves, Schlitzer said
in a telephone interview from Arnot, Pennsylvania.
"Right now, there's a national and international food
system," Schlitzer said. "Ten years, 20 years from now, will
that still be the case?"