More fuel on the food miles fire


Some more studies are emerging that are sure to cause much gnashing of teeth among proponents of eating locally, but stick with me here. I think the bigger picture is less dismaying than it might first appear.

The first study, performed by the researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand, suggests that shipping New Zealand lamb around the world by boat may be significantly better for the environment than buying it from the farm next door (at least if you live in Britain, which was the target of the comparison). The reason is that New Zealand’s grass farming techniques are less carbon-intensive than Britain’s more industrial model.

And in a truly irritating finding, environmentalist Chris Goodall has calculated that it makes more sense to drive to the store than to walk if you get your calories from beef. This is because beef production is so energy-intensive that it takes more fossil fuel to power your daily stroll than it does to power your car. Goodall is author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, so presumably he has some knowledge of the subject.

These sorts of counterintuitive arguments are maddening because most of us are looking for simple guidelines we can use to lower our own impact. Every time we think we hit upon a pretty good rule of thumb, some researcher comes along and spoils it.

Reducing one’s carbon footprint has often been likened to dieting, and the analogy in this case seems sadly apt. Americans in particular are so used to being whipsawed by competing theories of weight gain that they’ve become jaded. Avoid fat. No, avoid saturated fat. No, avoid transfat. No, stay away from sugar.

Will these studies into the energy intensity of the food production system have a similarly discouraging effect? Fortunately, the analogy between carbon footprint and dieting breaks down in some important ways. The most obvious is that weight loss is an issue for individuals, but carbon reduction is by its nature a collective problem. It’s wonderful for individuals to try to minimize their impact, but ultimately policymakers have the most leverage on this problem. Knowing that (in this particular case) the British food production system is incredibly energy intensive is a powerful and important piece of information for lawmakers, and it’s great that these sorts of life cycle analyses are being performed. Such analyses are the first step in reducing the footprint of the entire food production system, which is the real prize.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we can’t feed the entire world locally, so it’s comforting to know that shipped food can also be relatively benign. As the Times article points out, we should be seeking out more such areas of comparative regional efficiency, not looking to stamp them out.

Finally, individuals can take heart. Eating locally and eating lower on the food chain are still good rules of thumb. They might not serve you in every single instance, but that’s generally true of rules of thumb, which are doing their job if they get you by most of the time.

(Hat tip on both articles to reason.)

Footnote 1: There are many good reasons beyond climate change to eat locally. I’m just focusing on the carbon piece in this post.

Footnote 2: The factoid about driving vs. walking is pretty gimmicky, and shouldn’t be taken as an actual argument to drive more. For starters, no one gets all of their calories from beef. There are further issues, but really the point is just that beef production is energy-intensive responsible for lots of greenhouse gas emissions.

Photo available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Ryan McD.

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  1. Caroline - August 8, 2007

    Two points regarding the question of local versus long-distance food:
    1. I believe there is a strong case for not abandoning trade with farmers around the world who depend on the trade for their life. For rich northerners to summarily dismiss hundreds of millions of farmers’ lifeline is something that needs more careful thought.
    2. Windpowered Container Ships are already designed, I believ. Let’s bring them on and enable a very low energy international trading system to flourish. With solar power to keep the refrigeration working, why would it not be possible to get food around the world without causing climate mayhem?

  2. Bob - August 8, 2007

    For me, the more compelling argument is the support of the local economy — wherever we happen to live. If the first question asked is always, “is it locally produced?” the mind-set shifts away from carbon footprints and price, and toward enhancing a sense of community — which we’ll really need when cheap oil disappears. If things we need aren’t locally produced, then it’s OK to reach out to the next level of producer, and, as Caroline suggests, offer support to farmers world-wide who are struggling to survive. In that case, my question is, “Is it Fair Trade” produced?

  3. Geoff - August 8, 2007

    I took a lot of heat on my own blog for even mentioning the walking vs. driving study, but I think the nugget lurking inside it isn’t that beef is energy intensive, but that the non-CO2 greenhouse gases–which are the biggest contributors to global warming from cattle production–are actually quite important. Methane, N2O, SF6 and the various halocarbons represent 1/6th of current US CO2-equivalent emissions and about 45% of the incremental radiative forcing vs. the pre-industrial atmospheric composition.

  4. Anne - August 8, 2007

    regarding this:
    “Another thing to keep in mind is that we can’t feed the entire world locally, so it’s comforting to know that shipped food can also be relatively benign.”
    As one of the most inspirational farmers I know once said to me – when did it become our job to feed the world? The cultures of the world did quite well feeding themselves before colonialism and other evils (including Monsanto) came along and destroyed their food systems and began not-so-benignly “providing” them with our cheap corn, wheat, baby formula, etc. Maybe we should stop trying to “feed the world” and put our efforts into helping local food systems become successful again around the world, and, most importantly, making our own strong and sustainable.
    That said, appreciate all the caveats in the article :-) I too am irritated that “researchers” always find a way to make any action both absurd and necessary at the same time. All it does is confuse people about what should be an incredibly simple issue – eat food, grown nearby, from farmers you trust. end of story.

  5. Nick - August 8, 2007

    I’m struggling to understand the ways in which British Beef and Lamb production is more energy intensive than that in New Zealand. Taking our own beef production as an example, during the summer the cattle are out in the fields and there is essentially no energy used in keeping them there. The only energy input into the pasture is one very light dressing of fertiliser that is put on some of the fields to get a better yield of silage, followed by the cutting and baling of the silage. I can imagine that it is just possible in New Zealand that they don’t need to do a top-dressing of fertiliser for some reason, but I would be surprised if that is going to make a vast difference in energy terms per cow.
    The cattle are then moved into buildings for the winter – some energy involved in this, but again not much. Once in winter quarters there is very little energy involved except for providing and cleaning the straw bedding. But there is little alternative in the UK to taking the cattle in over winter becasue otherwise the pastures get all poached up and ruined when it gets wet – is this any different in NZ?
    I don’t think the methods I have described amount to “industrial” farming but I am ready to be corrected. I would also be very interested to know the ways in which NZ methods differ from ours that amounts to their methods being less “industrial”.

  6. Adam Stein - August 8, 2007

    Geoff — good point. I completely ignored non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions from beef production.
    Anne — the Green Revolution was not a Monsanto-backed conspiracy. Industrialization of the food production system has saved billions of people from starvation, so there are some pretty important moral considerations here. That said, I agree with you that the present system could be improved dramatically.
    Nick — good questions. Sorry to say I don’t have time to read the original report, but here’s a link:
    If you give it a skim, please report back on what you learn.

  7. Pete - August 8, 2007

    A long time ago, when Bloom County first came out, there was a great cartoon about dieting that rocked back and forth between the latest fads and one of the characters saying “Eat less and exercise more”. [With apologies to Berkeley Breathed for my lame description of a great ‘bit’]

    Fundamentally, the ‘whipsaw’ of dieting is mostly about people looking for a gimmick or a quick fix. If you’re gonna lose weight, you’re going to have to eat less and exercise more. It’s not very complicated.

    Similarly, if you’re going to lower your carbon footprint, I think the answer is simple: Use Less.

    Seems like the “Beef Walking” argument and Eating Local idea are trying too hard to unify different issues under one umbrella. I think that if we stick to the basics, like burning less fossil fuels, we’ll do better.

  8. Jason Sperling - August 8, 2007

    Here are some interesting stats that I’ve run across:
    The International Council on Clean Transporation released a new study March 22, 2007, NEW STUDY: AIR POLLUTION FROM SHIPS OVERTAKES ROAD TRAFFIC.
    The study shows that the sulfur content of marine fuel is far greater than diesel fuel used for trucks, buses and cars: globally, ships use fuel with an average sulfer content of 27,000 parts per million (ppm) compared to just 10 to 15 ppm for road fuels in Europe, Japan, and the United States.
    Currently, carbon dioxide emissions from the international shipping sector as a whole exceed annual total greenhouse gas emissions from most of the nations listed in the Kyoto protocol as Annex I countries (that’s the top most 40 developed countries or so).
    Food, and especially meat production, is a big part of this.
    I think that studies such as the coming out of New Zealand are dangerous because it could lead one to believe that not eating local / food miles are irrelevant, which is not the case. If you read the report, the emissions from the shipping industry are increasing compared to emissions from all other road transporation.
    So this is an issue to consider.
    Someone emailed me this information you may like to digest (excuse the pun!):
    * More than 25 billion animals are killed each year for food in the United States alone. That statistic is staggering considering the fact that there are only 6 billion human beings in the entire world. Eating meat takes an environmental toll that generations to come will be forced to pay.
    * Raising animals for food causes more water pollution in the U.S. than any other industry – because animals raised for food create 130 times the excrement of the entire human population—87,000 pounds per second ! Much of the waste from factory farms and slaughterhouses flows into streams and rivers, contaminating water sources.
    * More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat, and another acre of trees disappears every eight seconds. The tropical rain forests are also being destroyed to create grazing land for cattle. Fifty-five square feet of rain forest may be razed to produce just one quarter-pound burger.
    * More than half the water consumed in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, but only 25 gallons to produce a pound of wheat. A totally vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat-eating diet requires more than 4,000 gallons of water per day.
    You can also learn more about the global impact of what we eat in John Robbins’ The Food Revolution: How Diet Can Help Save Your Life And Our World.
    These figures just cry out to be considered.
    I’m still eating red meat, probably 2 or 3 times a month, but everytime I do I wonder why. I have a lot of respect for people who have decided to be vegans or vegetarians based on their environmental impact.

  9. Anonymous - August 8, 2007

    Pete makes a good point in his comment No. 7. “…if you’re going to lower your carbon footprint, I think the answer is simple: Use Less.” Amen…
    Because we are clever, oversize-brained primates we often fall into the trap of over thinking things. There is no magic worm hole that will enable us to somehow transport food halfway around the world in an environmentally friendly way. Friction alone will quickly consume any apparent reduction in the carbon footprint. Just ask the guy who tried to create the perpetual-motion machine (that eventually morphed into the roulette wheel). Whenever possible use, act, and buy locally. The less energy (ie. movement) we consume the better our children and our children’s children will be.

  10. Nick - August 8, 2007

    To Adam:
    The report you pointed me towards is exclusively about Dairy production, and doesn’t address meat production at all. You might need to reconsider your original post in that light!
    As far as milk production is concerned, it doesn’t entirely surprise me if British production is much more intensive. This is largely the result of the situation with respect to the market position of the farmers against that of the supermarkets and processors. The price that farmers get for milk has been driven down to a point at which it is totally unprofitable (literally) to produce milk. The only way that farmers can keep going in the current market is to maximize production.
    Economists might say that this is just the way the market works, but for an open market to operate fairly all parties in the chain of supply need to have roughly equivalent power. Because there are around 20,000 milk farmers but only a handful of customers the customers have all the power. The only way this can be resolved is for an outside control to be brought in or for the number of farms to dramatically reduce through consolidation. This is the way that a problem like this would normally be resolved but this would lead to even more of the “industrialization” that many people seem to dislike.
    Of course another way would be to “de-industrialise” the supermarkets and the rest of the supply chain, but I don’t see that much call for this to happen, and even more to the point I can’t see it actually happening any time soon, if ever.
    So in the meantime UK farmers just get squeezed on the one hand by the supermarkets and processors, and on the other hand by NZ producers who are more popular because they can produce milk more extensively and with lower energy input, not to mention the financial advantage that NZ farmers always get from an undervalued currency.

  11. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff - August 8, 2007

    Adam- you had the wrong like to the NZ study (that one was specific to dairy, with the same general findings). Here’s the more general study:

    They don’t seem to discuss beef, so maybe British lamb production is more carbon intensive than beef? But for lamb, the differences reported are not subtle- four times as much fuel used per kg lamb carcass, for instance.

  12. Adam Stein - August 8, 2007

    Sorry about the bad link. My Googling was off. Info for this post was taken entirely from press reports (always a bit dangerous), but the articles definitely mentioned lamb, milk, and also fruit. Again, anyone who digs into the original study, please chime in here.
    Jason — thanks for the stats, although I think it would be easy to misinterpret them. The air pollution referenced seems to refer to sulfur, not carbon. Obviously sulfur’s not great for the environment either, but this is a very different issue. Also, saying that the entire worldwide shipping sector accounts for more emissions than most countries doesn’t seem to be saying all that much. I’d probably expect this to be the case. Point being, shipping emissions are definitely a problem, but some of these figures are a bit confusing. I don’t think that studies such as the New Zealand one are dangerous, if they help us gain a better understanding of where in the production system we need to be most concerned about.

  13. cm - August 8, 2007

    I think the problem with the NZ study is that it assumes locally produced lamb (in this case) is also industrially produced. In the States, at least, the exact opposite is true. Most of the meat one finds in farmers markets and other “local” venues is pasture raised, as it is in NZ.

    So, the message that this NZ uni is putting out about buying globally is pretty fallacious, really. The problem of overusing fuel calories in shipping our food calories is not going to be solved by Americans buying lamb raised in New Zealand at Whole Foods. What we need is a shift away from the highly wasteful (and disease-ful) industrial processes used for raising cattle, hogs, chickens, and other livestock in this country. This is all brilliantly analyzed, of course, by Michael Pollan in *The Omnivore’s Dilemma*–essential reading on this topic.

  14. Darrel - August 8, 2007

    Note that “factoid” is an untrue “fact”. It is not a little fact, which is how most people use it.

  15. Jonathan Chen - August 8, 2007

    Being from NZ, I think part of the reason the Lincoln study was undertaken was because the British Govt. have/are/were trying to increase tariffs on NZ lamb again. I think they were looking for a moral reason to buy NZ lamb over British lamb (in addition to it tasting far, far better). NZ is good at growing sheep, let us eat lamb. England is good at growing potatoes, let them eat potatoes. 😛

  16. Nick - August 9, 2007

    Comment to Jonathan Chen:
    Sorry, but eating it in this country British Lamb is at least as tasty as NZ lamb. Furthermore, as with most meat products, the biggest difference comes in how long it has been hung, and it is much easier to get well-hung British lamb than NZ lamb.
    And why do you insultingly suggest that Britain is only good at growing potatoes? That demonstrates a very high degree of ignorance of the British terrain, climate and standards of husbandry. Flinging insults around does not assist in reasoned and mature debate.

  17. cynthia - August 14, 2007

    Since Terrapass has just basically ignored my comments to improve the environment (regarding: gas guzzling RVs), I would not like to renew my membership with Terrapass. You seem to be hung up on your own suggestions that brings you money, but not into investigating ways to change policy to improve the environment. That’s what we need!

  18. Adam Stein - August 14, 2007

    Hi Cynthia,
    I’m sorry you feel that way. We definitely are not ignoring your suggestion. We get dozens of great suggestions every week, and unfortunately we can only act on a small handful of them (we’re only eight people!). Some of them we may get to later. And some of them may just not fit very well with the type of stuff we’re good at. Part of the reason we have this blog is so that the wider community can hear and respond to suggestions that we ourselves may not be able to immediately act on.
    Our conservation tips do not, in general, have much to do with making money. We’ve published over 30 of them so far. They range from serious to silly, and our hope is that each one inspires at least a few people to find a way to lower their impact.

  19. Sarah - August 16, 2007


    Just as it’s impossible to ‘feed the whole world locally,’ I know this may be a HUGE stretch of the imagination for some…
    But if you must eat meat, why not eat wild game? In Ohio, our Whitetail deer population is very strong, and my husband and I both hunt. We are very educated, careful, and thankful for 1) the food, and 2) being able to enjoy the wilderness while we’re out there.
    Those animals are there whether we like it or not, and since we have eliminated the natural predators, they run the risk of becoming overpopulated and diseased.
    They don’t require any carbon to live, grow, and reproduce, at all. I realize nothing is just as simple as it seems, and there are plenty of ways one can ‘tack on’ carbon emissions somehow, some way. But essentially, it’s a win-win situation. If you choose not to hunt, you may know someone who does. Of course, it is much more lean than most beef.
    We have taken a Native-esque approach to using the rest of the animal to the best of our abilities, as well.
    If you’re completely opposed to it, that’s your perogative. But keep in mind that nature is not DISNEY. Bambi’s daddy may look cute, but nature can be ‘cruel and unusual’ all by itself, with no interference from humans. They’re used to it, that’s what ‘survival of the fittest’ means.
    I think that careful, educated, reverent hunting is far more ‘humane’ than keeping livestock penned up, sometimes in bad conditions, only to slaughter it and eat it. Don’t even get me started on egg production! And some of it goes to waste, because people don’t THINK about where their food is coming from.

    Well, that’s my 2 cents. I know it’s slightly off the subject, and I apologize for that. But when you can stroll out your back door and, with a bow, take a small doe that might not even make it through the winter… you’ve got maybe 60 pounds of meat to feed your family, a fur-lined parka to make for your son, and an opportunity to teach him the true ‘circle of life.’ It’s not worth all this other debate, for me.

  20. Jason Sperling - September 6, 2007

    Hi Adam,

    Sorry this is coming a bit after the fact but thought it would be worth shedding more light on.

    The study that I referenced (in #8 that you responded to in #12) done by the International Council on Clean Transportation looked at sulfur, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, in relation to its impact on global greenhouse emissions and air pollution. Here is the executive summary in case anyone wants to get a more detailed read:

    You said, “I don’t think that studies such as the New Zealand one are dangerous, if they help us gain a better understanding of where in the production system we need to be most concerned about.”

    It sounds like the New Zealand study does a good job of pointing out where in that specific production system we need to be concerned about, and I agree with you that doing such is not dangerous, but it gives a limited picture. It compares the environmental impact of two different scenarios of producing energy-intensive food while leaving out a third scenario of producing a lower energy-intensive food that could be produced locally and deliver a similar caloric value. By framing the “production system” as if the goal of the system is to produce energy-intensive food then it does succeed in helping us learn how to reduce our carbon footprint (totally important) but keeps us locked in our cultural thinking.

    So rather than holding up some locally produced low energy-intensive food versus anywhere-produced high energy-intensive food and drawing conclusions about the “production system” and where we should be concerned most, we instead are validating what may in fact be the real issue at hand: that eating meat cannot be sustainable — and that is where I think the study could be dangerous. (note: this week after seeing The 11th Hour I decided to give going veggie another try, so my fridge is stocked with seitan, tofurky, smart ground and tempeh – they don’t taste like chicken to me).

    Since according to the EPA, transportation is the fastest-growing source of U.S. GHGs and the largest end-use source of CO2, it seems that looking at the impact of the shipping industry (which I think along with aviation are the fastest growing sub groups of transportation) is critical now. Especially since international shipping has thus to be seriously regulated and has slipped under the global warming radar.

    In any case, thanks for bringing this study into the spotlight. Similar to carbon offsets, studies such as this do a great job of helping us to raise our consciousness.