Sarah Wakefield is a professor in the department of geography at the University of Toronto. Her current research focuses on sustainable food systems, with projects investigating food localism and the role of community service organizations and municipal governments in creating local food security.
Misunderstood food miles
Desrochers Food miles are a marketing fad … which distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production, the affordability, energy consumption and environmental impact of modern food production.
Wakefield Food miles are only one tool to help consumers see the "big picture" of food production and distribution. …The activists I know would like to see the existing food system transformed into something more environmentally sustainable and socially just. Local food is seen as a part of that transformation, not the ultimate goal.
The road less travelled
Desrochers The distance travelled by a product between producer and consumer is not indicative of the relative "cost" to the environment as expressed in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The greatest volume of emissions are often incurred during food production or transport between shop and home in the country of consumption.
Flying versus driving
Desrochers A UK consumer driving six miles to buy Kenyan green beans emits more carbon per bean than flying them from Kenya to the United Kingdom. Driving a car to and from the retailers to purchase food contributes 48 per cent of vehicle miles and 13 per cent of CO2 emissions associated with food purchases, according to one U.S. study.
To grow near, or far?
Desrochers Growing locally out of season (in greenhouses, for example) can be more environmentally damaging than importing foods over long distances from producers that use low-carbon technologies.
Wakefield These three points all riff on the same theme: Namely, that food miles are not the only consideration when assessing the environmental impact of the food we eat. It makes sense to pay attention to personal travel to and from shops, and to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions where possible. It also makes sense to buy food with the lowest possible environmental impact. However, … information about the conditions under which food is produced is hard to come by. When consumers buy local, they can be confident that the environmental and health standards for their region were met. And they can work with farmers and regulators to change things they don't like, something that is far more difficult in a globalized food system.
Buying local hurts
Desrochers A misplaced emphasis on transported distance from producers to retailers as a sustainability indicator will hurt the development of more distant, poorer economies and therefore hurt their capacity to devote more resources to environmental protection.
Wakefield Literally millions of small-scale subsistence farmers have been displaced by export-oriented corporate agriculture. No longer able to feed themselves, they - and their nations - increasingly rely on food purchased in the global marketplace. This can have disastrous consequences when food prices fluctuate.
ONLINE DISCUSSION: Join us Monday, Dec. 7 at noon EST as Prof. Desrochers and Prof. Wakefield takes your questions about local food
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