Sustainability and Food Miles are bed fellows for anyone passionate about preserving the planet for future generations and keeping the damage mankind inevitably engages in to an absolute minimum. Unfortunately, this topic is also a fairly emotional one, with enthusiasts often getting the wrong end the stick when they build their argument.
In essence, the argument runs along the following lines:
In order to be as gentle to the planet as possible, we should only consume food produced in close proximity of where consumption will take place. That reduces the environmental pressure as the carbon foot print associated with Food Miles increases with every extra yard the food has to travel to our plates. I know I have paraphrased here somewhat, but this is in essence the position taken.
The reality is, of course, a little different.
Firstly, our food supply models are very complex to say the least. If we were to back to only eating what was produced in close proximity, we would have some stark choices to make. Would we build a yoghurt factory next to every city, for example? How many consumers are needed to support one regional yoghurt factory? What is the optimum distance for that yoghurt to travel? Presumbably we should send it without refrigeration? Would that approach then not create a food safety problem? Or should we just go without?
Just a few questions - and for yoghurt read cherries, apples, lamb, beef, you name it.
Secondly, what we eat, how we eat and when we eat has evolved over millennia. Yes, the pace has sure increased in recent decades, but the changes we have made to our diets can still be explained and followed through, even if we don't always like our own explanations.
The operative word here is 'evolution' - meaning a steady change over time. For us to attempt to wind the clock back, stop food exports and imports would not just have an impact on our diets but also on our entire social structure...and that is something we don't need in a radcial fashion right now.
For a number of years the proponents of local food consumption, saving the planet and reducing the carbon foot print were very vocal in their attempts to right what they saw as an enormous.
After a while, scientists started to engage. One of the better pieces of academic work on the topic was produced at Lincoln University in New Zealand in 2006. The resulting report is factual, unemotional and dispels a number of urban myths. One astounding factor in the report is that the carbon foot print of lamb produced in the UK is actually bigger than of their cousins grown and slaughtered in New Zealand and flown to the UK!
A more recent Food Miles focused article was published in the Guardian earlier this year. It references the Lincoln report as well and has an English food writer issuing an apology for having gone down that track without really understanding the issue in the previous years.
Science now accepts that the carbon foot print and sustainability debates are a lot more complex than it appears initially and that solutions cannot be found by just adding kilometres travelled betwen source and market together and announcing an arithmetics based verdict.