The other night I was watching a cooking program, and part of it was about a restaurant where everything was locally sourced. The chef talked about ‘food miles’ and I decided that I would explore the concept, which is what it looks like: you should eat locally and avoid adding to the world’s carbon footprint. Now the ‘miles’ measurement came from the UK, and some time ago, but for someone in Canberra one hundred km would be the more sensible measure.
I thought about it all while I happily ate my ruby red grapefruit. My breakfast starts with half such a fruit and another fruit item, at the moment an apple or a pear. Now I could have the apple and pear sourced locally, but the ruby red would be a problem. As it happens I was eating one from the northern hemisphere, from Israel, in this case, so I wondered about the size of its food miles. Fairly soon the Australian grapefruits will come into the shops, and I’ll be able to desist from using those harvested in the northern hemisphere’s winter, usually from the USA. The Israeli ones, a wonderful surprise, have been the best I have ever eaten.
Back to the restaurant. Another thing this chef did was to put the grower’s name on the menu, and I’ve been in other restaurants where that is the practice, which I thoroughly approve of. But to restrict yourself to only those foods harvested within a hundred km or miles does seem to me unnecessarily punitive. I could just avail myself of seafood, though those living a bit west of Yass would find that a NoNo. For them, the only appropriate fish within their 100 km radius would be trout, Murray cod and other fish gathered from inland waterways.
All tropical fruits would be out. No mangoes, pineapples, lychees, and their various cousins would be permitted. No macadamias, cashews or peanuts. No Weis bars, my summer treats. Add it all up, and you have a highly restricted diet. Meats would be okay, and grains, and stone fruits, and dairy products of all kinds, though again, not much cheese comes from our area, almonds and walnuts. Plenty of vegetables, though not in spring or the end of winter, unless you’re deeply fond of caulis and cabbages. Hmm. That reminds me of one of my mother’s quips: ‘Life is butter melon cauliflower’.
Where does all this come from? Wikipedia has a useful and (in my judgment) balanced entry on food miles, and I learned quite a bit from it. The inventor was Professor Tim Lang, in the 1990s. He is now the Professor of Food Policy (!) at London’s City University. Food-miles are part of the notion of ‘sustainability’, environmental impacts, and of course greenhouse gas emissions. There is some face logic to it. Surely the world would be better off, environmentally, if you ate salmon sourced from Tasmania than from Norway. The antagonism to food-miles aims an arrow at the globalisation of food demand and supply, which is apparently four times more prevalent than it was in 1961.
The trouble is that thinking this way gets in the way of other admirable objectives. We in Australia eat a lot of Vietnamese and Thai prawns that are farmed on the coasts of these countries. I’ve driven past what seemed like a hundred kilometres of prawn farms in Thailand. These people depend on our purchases, and our purchases help to raise the standards of living in these countries. More, eating those prawns puts less pressure on the wild prawns of our oceans, where over-fishing has reduced catches and threatened the species themselves. What is the right way to go?
Let’s think also about our own people, way up north. From memory alone, the only tropical fruit we ate in Canberra when I was a boy were bananas and pineapples. Today we also have mangoes, lychees, all kinds of fruit I first saw in Thailand in 1971, macadamias — you name it. Yes, we still have seasons. The mangoes, alas, are finished. The first grapes come from WA and Queensland, the last ones from Tasmania. That’s an almost half-year season that runs from December to May. We are a most fortunate nation-state because we stretch from the tropics to the cold southern ocean. And we are rich enough as a society to be able to afford these fruits and vegetables, not to mention barramundi, banana prawns and other comestibles. Let us support our northern fellow- citizens and neighbours, say I!
Wikipedia has a most interesting account of the extent to which the search for overcoming food-miles is actually effective. Here’s a bit of it. To start with, if the food is processed, then working out its food-miles is really complicated. If we leave that aside for the moment, transporting food by air is much more costly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) than doing the same by a container ship. But some foods can’t use that alternative because the demand is for fresh, and Now! I’m thinking of tuna for Japan and banana prawns for us, lobsters for the Asian wedding markets, and so on.
Then there is the question of the energy used in production. One study suggested that growing tomatoes in Spain and then sending them to the UK used less energy than tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses in England. Large-scale agriculture reduces the unit-costs of food production and transportation, according to a German study. There are similar studies in other countries. On the other side, meat and dairy produce the largest amounts of GGE, and researchers suggest that moving to a vegetarian diet, even if only a part shift, does more to reduce GGE than anything to do with transport and food-miles.
Well, there you go. I eat a balanced diet anyway, enjoy vegetables and salads, and don’t eat a great amount of meat, so I think I’m doing my best there. I have no intention of giving up cheese or butter, let alone my favourite steak with sauce Dianne, for which I have to journey to a restaurant. I also want to go on eating my ruby red grapefruit halves, wherever they come from. But I found this excursion into the subject of food-miles to be an interesting one.
To conclude, I feel that the proponents of eating and sourcing food that is only harvested locally are treating themselves harshly and adding little or nothing to the imagined problem of greenhouse gas emissions. But look, we are told that ‘diversity’ is important, so I’ll go on enjoying the foods that I like, wherever they come from, and those of that persuasion can eat only locally harvested stuff. If they can be sure about actually where it comes from…