Just Food

Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly


By James E. McWilliams

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We suffer today from food anxiety, bombarded as we are with confusing messages about how to eat an ethical diet. Should we eat locally? Is organic really better for the environment? Can genetically modified foods be good for you?

Just Food does for fresh food what Fast Food Nation did for fast food, challenging conventional views, and cutting through layers of myth and misinformation. For instance, an imported tomato is more energy-efficient than a local greenhouse-grown tomato. And farm-raised freshwater fish may soon be the most sustainable source of protein.

Informative and surprising, Just Food tells us how to decide what to eat, and how our choices can help save the planet and feed the world.



American Pests: The Losing War on Insects
from Colonial Times to DDT

Building the Bay Colony: Local Economy and
Culture in Early Massachusetts

A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for
Food Shaped America


Copyright © 2009 by James E. McWilliams

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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First eBook Edition: August 2009

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ISBN: 978-0-316-05263-4


Food Miles or Friendly Miles?:
Beyond the "Farm to Fork" Paradigm of Production

Who gets to define "the local"?—MELANIE DEPUIS

No single concept unites the locavore movement more powerfully than food miles—the distance our food travels before we eat it. It's an elegantly simple measure of environmental consciousness, has the benefit of being easy to understand, and requires one and only one basic change in behavior: reduce food miles. Doing so is considered critical to the related tasks of relocalizing the food supply, shrinking the supply chain, minimizing the fossil fuels used to deliver our food, and supporting local farms. At first glance, the argument that minimizing the distance food travels is better for the environment appears to be unassailable. How could anyone possibly object to the intuitively sensible argument that it's always a good idea to buy local food?

As it turns out, there are ample grounds for objection. The concept of food miles, appealing as it may be, is flawed on many levels. To begin to see why, consider an analogy. Suppose you have a friend with a weight problem. This person consumes fries, burgers, lots of processed food, chili dogs, pizza, bacon, sausage, loads of ice cream, and enough beer to float a battleship on. Exercise basically consists of walking from the sofa to the fridge and back. The only redeeming aspect of this person's dismal diet is that he drinks only a single cup of coffee a day, with no sugar and only a splash of half-and-half. Then suppose that one afternoon, after a dreadful visit to the doctor, this person declares that it's high time to get in shape! In a fit of enthusiasm, he announces that he will start his new regime by… leaving the half-and-half out of his coffee.

The locavore emphasis on food miles is a lot like this person's emphasis on half-and-half. We're currently captives of an industrialized food system burdened with a catalogue of debilitating problems. Nevertheless, we've collectively chosen to isolate and develop an entire localist ideology around a bit player in the larger drama—the distance our food travels from "farm to fork." Locavores—who, it must be noted, have never really defined "local"—envision their work not only as supporting local culinary and agricultural initiatives, but also as an overt challenge to corporate consolidation, globalization, and in some cases capitalism in general. For whatever reason, the gurus of high cuisine have started to think less about feeding the world a sustainable diet and (to talk the talk here) more about restoring the local "foodshed," rediscovering the "taste of place," "relocalizing" the food system, "reembedding food into local ecologies," and, once and for all, "coming home to eat."

Heady stuff. However, the groundswell of support for what seems to be a perfectly logical approach to reforming our broken food system actually counteracts the sustainable goals responsible consumers want to achieve. Food miles are the half-and-half in our coffee; in reducing them, we make little progress toward the ultimate goal of sustainable production.

Fleshing out this argument requires doing four things. First I'll chart the rise and triumph of the food-mile trend and then explain why it is, paradoxically, only a minor link in the complex chain of food production. Next I'll speculate on the underlying reasons for the concept's popularity, highlighting the political motivations empowering our cultish attraction to the fetish of localism. Third I'll elaborate on how the unintended consequences of perpetuating an "eat local" brand—consequences that can be cynically populist, isolationist, and protectionist—have hollowed out the movement's core and exposed the brand to the most dangerous kind of corporate exploitation. Finally, I'll sketch out another model for thinking about food and transportation, one that allows for extensive trade while stressing the importance of both transportation efficiencies and streamlined processes of production and consumption in order to reduce the energy we expend on food.

I suppose what follows could be interpreted as an attack on the food world's sacred cow. I should thus stress that I'm not attacking locavores for the sake of attacking locavores, but rather because there's a more complex story to tell about food and the distance it travels. Considerable research that never quite hits the media bull's-eye tells us that we must be prepared to think more holistically when it comes to evaluating the carbon footprint left by our food choices. In addition, questioning the food-miles premise introduces what will be a recurring theme of this book: we must be prepared to dissolve entrenched but simplistic dichotomies—in this case the idea that distance is bad, proximity is good—in order to help pave the way to the golden mean. In focusing on food miles at the expense of so many other detrimental factors of production and consumption, we're wasting time, energy, and a heap of good intentions that could very well save future generations from the mess that previous generations have dumped upon us.

1500 Miles

Fifteen hundred miles. If you've heard of food miles, you've heard the figure. Cited more often than any other number as the distance that our food travels from farm gate to dinner plate, "1500 miles" now defines the issue. Do a quick Google search for "1500" and "food miles." You'll be inundated with trite variations on the same theme: "most produce grown in the United States travels 1500 miles before it gets sold"… "the average grocery store's produce travels 1500 miles"… "produce traveled an average of 1500 miles from producer to consumer"… "fresh produce travels over 1500 miles before being consumed." And so on.

Interestingly, although the figure has saturated the locavore literature, it was derived from a small database and a set of flimsy assumptions. As Jane Black recently explained in Slate, researchers at the University of Wisconsin's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture examined only thirty-three kinds of vegetables, and they measured the distance they traveled to one city, Chicago, in order to calculate the figure. They relied on "terminal market data" collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to estimate the flow of food in the United States, even though, as Black writes, "the country's 22 terminal markets handled only 30 percent of the nation's produce." They ignored the fact that the other 70 percent is managed by retailers through their own (likely more efficient) distribution networks. And finally, because terminal market data only list states, researchers assumed that the product was sent from the center of the state, an assumption that works for California but not for states where agricultural production is more condensed geographically. 1

The fact that this inflammatory number seems to be minimally accurate hardly matters. Perception, after all, is reality. The 1500-mile mark, by virtue of being endlessly repeated, infuses the enlightened discourse of the culinary tastemakers, so much so that it's become the exclusive basis for a relatively new way of conceptualizing how we should eat an environmentally responsible diet. You can't open the food section of a newspaper without being covered in the sap of feel-good stories that repeatedly sermonize over the same lesson: eat local. When you encounter vendors at farmers' markets displaying cardboard signs defending their local produce with the statistic that conventional food comes from "1500!! miles away," there's no point in demanding a footnote. Discussion is preempted. The underlying message is essentially set in stone: food miles are deeply powerful as a proxy for the pervasive belief that it is bad for the environment for food to travel such long distances. 2

If the 1500 figure fell from the heavens, the underlying concern for its implications developed in the earthly here and now. This is a genuinely important matter—one involving fossil fuel, greenhouse gases, and considerable energy expenditure—and it must be faced head-on. Between 1968 and 1998, the world's population almost doubled. Food production rose 84 percent. Trade in food rose 184 percent. The volume of food crisscrossing national borders has risen fourfold over the past forty years. Commodities now travel greater distances and with more frequency than ever before. If for no other reason than its conspicuousness, this dramatic increase has become the surest symbol of an inefficient, far flung, gas-hogging food system, one that's hooked on fossil fuels, wedded to maximized production, and begging for reform. The argument for reducing food miles seems beyond criticism, rooted in documented reality, easily achievable, and unquestionably just. There's good reason that people treat this freshly minted trend like a timeless creed.

Challenging the localism assumption becomes all the more difficult given that the locavore movement is crowned by the sanctified status of the farmers' market. "Farmers' markets," write a team of agricultural economists, "tend to be one of the first manifestations of a relocalizing food system." The farmers' market owes its meteoric rise to the increasing popularity of food-mile critiques leveled since the 1990s. One important reason that these alternatives to retail consumption have flourished so brilliantly is that they're comfortable venues where consumers can become intimate with the food and the people who grow it. 3

I'm always impressed with the personal nature of my farmers' market. The supply chain is significantly demystified when Local Farmer hands over local peaches from a dusty box with his dirt-encrusted hands. We know where the farms are, we know what the farmers look like, we know when they picked their produce, we think we know how they grew it, and we know that big corporate interests have been left out in the cold, all of which lends our decision to pay extra or make extra trips for locally grown food an air of virtue and a sense of environmental altruism. It just feels right to buy local produce at the farmers' market, and one reason it feels so good is that we think it is, ipso facto, a small act in the larger drama of saving the planet. It's at the farmers' market that we thumb our nose at 1500.

The lowered food miles that help distinguish the crunchy farmers' market from the tube-lit A&P have—or at least claim to have—the added benefits of ensuring a safer food supply and better-tasting goods. Frankly, I'm skeptical of both assertions, and while I won't go too deeply into the matter, I often wonder if consumers could consistently discern the difference in a blind taste test between farmers' market produce and Wal-Mart produce. I'm equally doubtful, unlike 85 percent of Americans, that a small operation is any better than a large one at keeping food free of dangerous bacteria. In any case, the fourfold increase in farmers' markets between 1990 and the present is, along with the rise of community-supported agriculture, the greenest manifestation we have of the unexamined axiom that local food is better food for the environment. 4

If ever there were a consensus on an environmental ideal, the supreme virtue of going local with the food supply by shopping at a farmers' market would seem to be it. And this is what makes me suspicious. Shouldn't this very consensus raise red flags? Is it possible that such a seemingly untouchable concept—locally produced food is food produced with less energy—might be too easy an answer to the vast environmental problems infecting our food supply? Could it be that we flock to this idea because of its accessibility and simplicity rather than its inherent ability to actually solve an incredibly complex problem? Answers to these questions are worth pursuing.


To say that there's a veritable consensus on the benefits of lowering food miles is not to say that the concept has completely sidestepped criticism. Below the media frenzy lurks a sophisticated strategy of energy evaluation known as a life-cycle assessment (LCA). Because the concept is neither simple nor amenable to a quick sketch in a thirty-second news spot, it has received scant attention in the mainstream press. Nevertheless, LCAs are essential to understanding why a food-miles litmus test is an inadequate measure of our food's environmental impact. They're also essential to achieving a more environmentally streamlined system of food production. What LCAs ultimately uncover are the hidden links in the food-supply chain that are the most environmentally damaging and in turn most in need of repair.

A life-cycle assessment is like a full physical. It's a thorough energy evaluation that takes into consideration as many factors of production and consumption as can reasonably be measured. Transportation is only one factor, and as it turns out, a relatively minor one. This more comprehensive approach to evaluating the carbon footprint of food production began in Denmark in 1993 at the first European Invitational Expert Seminar on Life Cycle Assessment of Food Products. Not a real zinger for the nightly news, but it was there that scientists began to conceptualize food production in the broadest possible terms. They looked not just into transportation distances but also into water usage, harvesting techniques, pesticide application, fertilizer outlays, the amount of carbon absorbed through photosynthesis, disposal of product, packaging, crop drying techniques, storage procedures, nitrogen cycles, climatic conditions, and dozens of less obvious cultivation inputs.

Since then, other analysts of our ever-expanding food system have undertaken similar measurements on the consumption end of the equation. Researchers are now considering, for example, the emissions put out by consumers who buy food several times a week from many different outlets (can't get toilet paper at the farmers' market) and the efficiency of home cooking methods (including what kind of oven is used). The point to these investigations is not to play "gotcha" with the locavores. Instead, it's to identify the most energy-draining stages of consumption. With such hot spots isolated, we can better direct our efforts to reducing their impact—something locavores have ostensibly aimed to do from the outset.

The application of LCAs to food production can yield surprising results for those singularly wedded to the logic of food-mile measurements. A couple of examples reveal how the process typically works to identify the stages of production most in need of repair. A 2003 LCA on the Danish fishing industry concluded that when it comes to flatfish production, the environmental hot spot was not transportation but rather the logistics of the fishing process itself. The upshot, one that an emphasis on food miles would have missed, was the discovery that overall fuel consumption could be reduced by an enormous fifteen times if fishers used a seine instead of a beam trawl to catch fish. A seine is a net that hangs vertically in the water, whereas a beam trawl is a net that's weighted to the ocean floor and dragged across it, which requires substantially more energy than a seine. In light of this discovery, anyone opposing the consumption of flatfish shipped around the world on the basis of food miles would be grossly misdirecting his or her efforts. Technically, it would make more sense to ask whether the fish at the counter was caught with a seine or a trawl than to ask how far it traveled. 5

Other examples of unexpected LCA results abound. With canned mackerel and pickled herring, the hot spots were the processing and disposal (of cans and waste) stages, segments of the supply chain that consumed far more fossil fuel than the transportation of these products across vast global distances.

An LCA study done in 2000 on agricultural energy consumption in Denmark similarly found transportation to be a minor link in the chain. The real energy sink again was with production. Evaluating everything from soil structure and weather conditions to tractor model and driving techniques, scientists found that what mattered most in terms of energy efficiency was the chopping methods used to harvest crops. The report found that on most farms, "if the knife cylinder is replaced by a cutter wheel," a fuel reduction of 29 percent would result. "New cultivation methods," the authors wrote, "may change the whole picture." It is for this reason that Randi Dalgaard, a scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, notes that "producing food and getting it to consumers involves far more than just transportation. How the food is produced and the sustainability of the processes used is the real issue and it's these areas that need to be addressed." 6

Life-cycle assessments have been around since the 1970s. Companies traditionally used them to assess durable goods in order to cut costs. Today, however, these studies are focusing more than ever on food, and the intended result is to cut not only costs but energy usage as well. Research projects like the Danish ones described here are quietly mounting a well-documented counterattack to the culturally entrenched belief that eating local is necessarily better for the environment. One study of hamburger production observed that "baking and storage are the most energy consuming stages and transportation the least energy consuming one." An evaluation of shrimp farms in Thailand discovered that energy costs were almost exclusively bound up with the "intrinsic properties of geographical location" rather than the distance the shrimp travel to reach consumers. 7

Taking a bird's-eye view of these food LCAs, Rich Pirog—who is, ironically, the person who veritably founded food-miles analyses—has shown that production and processing account for 45.6 percent of the fossil fuel usage, restaurant preparation takes up another 15.8 percent, and home preparation sucks up a whopping 25 percent of the overall energy used to produce and consume food made in the United States. Transportation is the lowest of all the factors evaluated (at 11 percent), a fact that has led scholars writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology to conclude that "although food is transported long distances in general… the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase." 8

Other results have broadened the perspective on food miles. Because of LCAs, we've learned that it is four times more energy-efficient for London consumers to buy grass-fed lamb imported by ship from New Zealand than to buy grain-fed lamb raised locally. This may seem completely ridiculous, but in terms of energy use, the comparative advantage of growing lamb on the other side of the world far outweighs the transportation energy costs. After these findings were published in 2006, the environmental advocates at the Landcare Research organization, a New Zealand institute dedicated to sustainable farming, conceded that "localism is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle." 9

Winter tomatoes that originate in Spain and travel to England obviously cover more miles than British tomatoes to go from farm to fork, but mainly because of the fact that so many British tomatoes are hothouse-grown (which can take up to ten times more energy), Spanish tomatoes are more energy-efficient in the aggregate. German apple juice imported from Brazil, which racks up over 10,000 miles on the odometer, is also less energy-consumptive than apples grown and processed locally. Study after study has shown that local is not necessarily greener. 10

LCAs also flesh out the food system in ways that highlight the subtleties of transportation, distance, and production. One of the most common points overlooked in the "eat local" trend is the industrial food system's ability to achieve economies of scale. When former North Carolina senator John Edwards was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, announced to the media, "I live in North Carolina. I'll probably never eat a tangerine again." It was her gesture to the locavore voting block. However, as several economists were quick to confirm, Edwards's remark ignored the benefits of scale economies. They showed that if it had theoretically been possible to buy a local tangerine from a farmer who trucked in that tangerine from sixty miles away, that still would have been more energy-consumptive than buying a tangerine from a larger load trucked in from Florida, sent by rail from California, or even shipped from Spain. 11

How? What mattered in the Edwards claim was not the source of the tangerines but the "tangerines per gallon." In an academic article titled "Over the Long Haul," the rural sociologist Matt Mariola succinctly clarifies the most common misunderstanding about food-mile measurements. "Imagine," he writes, "a trailer carrying 2000 tomatoes, traveling 2000 miles from California to Iowa, and using 2000 gallons of fuel… each tomato would be said to have traveled 2000 miles, which is technically true… however, one can more accurately parse the energy use by item and state that a single tomato only accounted for the equivalent of 1 gallon of fuel." 12

When produce comes with a food-mile measure, as it increasingly does, the figure is essentially meaningless if the number of items with which it traveled goes unmentioned. Similar studies undertaken by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service revealed that "when the transportation method was taken into account, the local food system required more energy and emitted more CO2 than the regional system." Again, if we're going to focus on transportation—as the locavores insist we do—it is critical that we use the right formulas. 13

Furthermore, insofar as we do focus on transportation, we must realize that it's about more than just the distance food travels from producer to consumer. It also involves the distance the consumer travels to the producer—a figure that rarely, if ever, factors into locavore assessments. Again, Matt Mariola's quantitative work has been especially insightful on this issue. Through an analysis of food-buying habits in Ohio, Mariola notes that local consumption required three shopping trips (farmers' market, orchard, and grocery store), whereas nonlocal shopping demanded just one visit to the grocery store. The differences proved to be significant: 10 versus 38 miles driven, 1.08 versus 2.42 hours consumed, and .56 instead of 2.11 gallons of gas guzzled. 14

According to Lee Barter, a transportation analyst at Deloitte, an international consulting firm, "any environmental benefits obtained by purchasing local produce from the farmers' market across town were quite likely nullified the moment you drove past the supermarket." He concludes, "It might be better to shop local than buy local." While this conclusion is based on a relatively small number of studies, it still reveals how important it is to consider the full cycle of energy expenditure. 15

Not to be ignored as we evaluate the hidden links in the life-cycle chain is the energy sucked up by our own behavior in the kitchen. This is a significant factor of consumption that's also generally avoided by the food-milers. As Pirog found, one quarter of the total energy used in the production and consumption of a food product transpires in the kitchen. The typical household wastes more than 1.28 pounds of food a day, 27 percent of which is vegetables. This amounts to about 14 percent of overall food purchases being tossed in the trash. "This issue of waste in the food chain," writes Ronald Bonney, "leaves consumers looking pretty irresponsible." 16


On Sale
Aug 26, 2009
Page Count
272 pages

James E. McWilliams

About the Author

James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University. He was a fellow at Yale University’s Agrarian Studies Program, and is the author of three previous books. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Learn more about this author