Food Miles: Environmental Protection or Veiled Protectionism?

Eat local. Such a small phrase yet such a loaded proposition. Buying food from nearby sources has become a popular objective. This aim is associated with helping farmers in one’s country or region; observing the seasonality of one’s location; eating fresher foods; striving for food security; and protecting the environment. One of the unmistakable messages of the “locavore” movement is that importing food—particularly food that comes from far away—causes environmental harm. The theory is that transporting food long distances results in the release of high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere and is thus a dangerous contributor to climate change. Proponents of this view therefore argue that “food miles”—the distance food travels from farm to plate—should be kept to a minimum. Farming interests in countries that import significant amounts of agricultural products have sought regulations to differentiate between foods based on how far they have travelled. And some supermarkets, particularly in Europe, have been utilizing differential labeling, such as placing an airplane sticker on produce that has been air shipped. The overwhelming implication, then, is that the farther food travels from farm to plate, the more environmental harm is caused.