NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 6, 2007

Is reducing "food miles" -- how far food has traveled before you buy it -- necessarily good for the environment?  Researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand, no doubt responding to Europe's push for "food miles labeling," recently published a study challenging the premise that more food miles automatically mean greater fossil fuel consumption.  Other scientific studies have undertaken similar investigations.  According to this peer-reviewed research, compelling evidence suggests that there is more -- or less -- to food miles than meets the eye, says James E. McWilliams, author of "A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America."

It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator: 

  • Instead of measuring a product's carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production -- what economists call "factor inputs and externalities."
  • These include water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions:

  • Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand's clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed.
  • In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

These life-cycle measurements are causing environmentalists worldwide to rethink the logic of food miles, says McWilliams.

Source: James E. McWilliams, "Food That Travels Well," New York Times, August 6, 2007.

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