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Source: The Gallon Environment Letter Vol. 14, No. 10, December 15, 2009, published by the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment, Fisherville, Ontario, Canada Tel. 416 410-0432, Fax: 416 362-5231


Pierre Desrochers, economic geographer and associate professor at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus, believes that food miles and the 100 mile diet are at best a marketing fad. He has co-authored a paper which examines the origins and validity of the food miles concept and basically rejects all of it as bad for the environment, society and for the economy. The paper points out flaws in what is called the local food movement, the most important of which is that transportation can be only a (relatively small) part of the environmental impact of food. During winter in Canada, countries in the south can grow food outdoors without use of heating and the environmental impact may much be less than producing fresh food here.

Concentrating Farms: More/Bigger Is Better

Desrochers' premise is based on the idea that "concentrating agricultural production in the most favourable regions is the best way to minimize human impacts because doing so "spares" much land that can then be returned to, or remain in, a "natural" state. ... As Adam Smith wrote more than two centuries ago, it is the "maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy." By continually eliminating waste and inefficiencies, market processes would ensure an ever increasing, healthier, and more affordable food supply while simultaneously constantly reducing inputs per unit and, over time, their environmental impacts."

GL notes that as early as 1995 as part of its then State of the Environment Reporting, Environment Canada produced a factsheet called The Environmental Implications of the Hamburger Life Cycle which addressed some of the downsides of concentrations of farm operations.. One of the conclusions was that "There are significant differences in how efficiently various animals and production methods use energy to produce protein. Rangeland cattle are actually among the most efficient, but feedlot cattle are the least. This difference is primarily a result of the extra energy required to produce and process feeds for cattle. The energy differential is partially offset by the shorter feeding and handling period required by feedlot cattle before they reach market weight."

While Desrochers' paper gives much food for thought, GL is concerned that he may have overstepped his evidence. He has some evidence to show that not all local food has a lower environmental impact than imported. GL agrees he is correct on that. GL has pointed out a few of examples previously (Energy Use Comparison of Local and Globally Sourced Food GL Vol. 10, No. 2, January 25, 2005). However, the external costs of high yielding intensive agriculture are often not added to the "costs." In some circumstances, agricultural uses can be layered with wildlife and ecological services; it may not be pristine nature nor yield the highest volume of food products but added together the value may be higher than in the more intensive agriculture.

Range of Views of Local Food Advocates

Attempting to interpret the objectives of all local food advocates seems to GL to be a bit of a straw horse. Large industrial farms are local to somewhere and those are not the ones that many food advocates are promoting. Like many other areas of the environment, or indeed most social goals (such as justice, equity, poverty elimination), terms such as sustainable farming are not wholly pre-defined, evolve in place and time, and are often simplified for consumers too busy or disinterested to get involved in nuances. The difficulty of finding the right words is common e.g. ZEV Zero Emission Vehicles are used as a term in legislation but electric vehicles called ZEV are emitting somewhere - at the power plant producing electricity.

Desrochers has taken one relatively extreme position, the 100 mile (or even kilometre) diet as an example of all local food positioning. Many of those in the local food movement encourage consumers to become more familiar with where their food comes from, to build connections with the food producers, and to make better choices overall for personal, social, economic and environmental benefits. Most food advocates don't say consumers shouldn't eat bananas, but that when local food is available, for example, in season, consumers should choose them. It is also not unreasonable to suggest that in order to help local producers stay viable, it might be a good idea to adjust eating habits to buy stored products such as apples, cabbage, etc for as long as possible out-of-season. Since those imported apples are likely to go into storage for a while anyway, stored local apples may not be so very out-of-line. It may be a simplified guide and wrong occasionally but getting to know local farmers and how they farm is also recommended for making more informed choices. In Canada the idea that one can eat only local food is not especially realistic. Local when possible, and increasing the percentage of local food, makes much more sense.

Consumer demand has been one of the incentives for a number of farmers to switch to more ecological farming practices including certified organic. Local food advocates are also helping consumers grow their own food, teach their children about how eating is connected to the environment and that cheap food may have another price tag. The local food issue often focuses on fresh products when the value is in processed, a gap that programs such as FedNor, a federal regional development program which helps Northern Ontario producers develop and market cheese, jams and syrups, cut meats, ice cream, dried fruit, pies with northern fruits or meats, and food gifts, is seeking to address.

Nevertheless, we recommend Desrochers' paper. It is an interesting paper to read, especially as it discusses the need to consider environmental impacts such as consumers driving to go shopping for food, food waste, cooking food, and food storage.

Environment Canada. Connections: Canadian Lifestyle Choices and the Environment http://www.ec.gc.ca/soer-ree/English/products/factsheets/95-1.cfm

Shimizu, Hiroko and Pierre Desrochers. Yes We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the Food Mile Perspective. Mercatus Policy Series. Fairfax,Virginia: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, October 24, 2008

Industry Canada. Regional and Rural Development. FedNor. Government of Canada to showcase Northern Ontario's agriculture industry at the Royal Winter Fair. North Bay, Ontario, November 4, 2009. http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/fednor-fednor.nsf/eng/fn03160.html

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