In 1993, a Swedish researcher calculated that the ingredients of a typical Swedish breakfast-apple, bread, butter, cheese, coffee, cream, orange juice, sugar-traveled a distance equal to the circumference of the Earth before reaching the Scandinavian table. In 2005, a researcher in Iowa found that the milk, sugar, and strawberries that go into a carton of strawberry yogurt collectively journeyed 2,211 miles (3,558 kilometers) just to get to the processing plant. As the local-food movement has come of age, this concept of “food miles” (or “-kilometers”) -roughly, the distance food travels from farm to plate– has come to dominate the discussion, particularly in the United States, the United Kingdom, and parts of Western Europe.
The concept offers a kind of convenient shorthand for describing a food system that’s centralized, industrialized, and complex almost to the point of absurdity. And, since our food is transported all those miles in ships, trains, trucks, and planes, attention to food miles also links up with broader concerns about the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from fossil fuel-based transport.
In this sense, life-cycle analyses of the current food system offer a paradoxically hopeful perspective, because they suggest that, if the goal is to improve the environmental sustainability of the food system as a whole, then there are a variety of public policy levers that we can pull. To be sure, promoting more localized food production and distribution networks would reduce transport emissions.
But what if a greater investment in rail infrastructure helped to reverse the trend toward transporting more food by inefficient semi-truck? What if fuel economy standards were increased for the truck fleet that moves our food? Or, to name one encompassing possibility, what if a carbon-pricing system incorporated some of the environmental costs of agriculture that are currently externalized?
Local food is delicious, but the problem -and perhaps the solution- is global.