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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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