Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Just Food by James E. McWlliams - Examining Food Miles

Do you know where the food you eat comes from? Is it produced near to where you live? Is your food produced in a way that is energy efficient?

When we stop to think about it, we generally agree that we want our food supply to be sustainable and ethical. When we lived in the UK I subscribed to a brilliant organic fruit and veg box from a local farm that was delivered weekly. I had milk delivered by my local milkman and I tried to shop either at the farmers' market or by choosing British foods at the supermarket. Since moving to Hong Kong, though, I have had a few problems with buying local food.

I wrote before about buying milk in Hong Kong - there were no good options for me. In the months since that post my husband and I have still been trying to find good quality milk. A lot of the time we resort to milk that is flown here from great distances: Australia or the US. This troubles me.

The availability of other local foods is not much better. Meat from China is sometimes local (China is a big place). But is is often very poor quality, and almost surely produced in a feedlot with horrific conditions. Better quality meat that can be organic and even free range is shipped here from New Zealand, Australia, and North America. We even get some Welsh lamb in our grocery freezers. There is one vegetable farm that is local and organic; this and a very small weekly farmers' market are the two bright spots in the Hong Kong local food market.

In November, the Kitchen Reader book club members had a choice of two books to read: Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James E. McWilliams or Eat Where You Live: How to Find and Enjoy Fantastic Local and Sustainable Food No Matter Where You Live by Lou Bendrick. Julie of Savvy Eats was the hostess.

I chose to read Just Food, perhaps because I am looking for answers about what to do when I can't buy or eat local foods. McWilliams gives a very thorough, well-reasoned, and heavily footnoted treatment of the solutions available to us to feed the world. As the world's population grows, global food supply becomes increasingly important. McWilliams examines six important issues surrounding ethical eating: food miles, the merits of organic food, genetically modified crops, eating meat, farmed fish, and government policies and farm subsidies. In this review I want to focus only on the issue of food miles. First, here are eight things I learned.

1. Food miles are easy to calculate. It's simple to compare snow peas from Kenya and those from China and ask myself which have been transported with less energy expenditure. Food miles are easy to understand.

2. Life cycle assessments (LCAs) analyse the energy used throughout the whole process of growing, processing, transporting, and preparing the food. For many foods, food miles are not the biggest energy use in their LCA.

For example, a 2003 Danish study regarding the production of flatfish uncovered that the biggest energy consumption was which method of fishing was used. The study concluded that the overall energy usage could be reduced by fifteen times if the fishers used a seine instead of a beam trawl. For consumers in London, it is astoundingly four times more energy efficient to buy lamb from New Zealand than locally. This is because the long lines of transportation are efficient, whereas the local food production is not energy efficient.

A study analysing all the food eaten in the United States observed that of all the factors contributing to energy usage in food production, transportation was actually the smallest, at 11%. (Production and processing use 46%, restaurant preparation adds another 16%, and home preparation uses 25%.)

McWilliams sums up this section by saying, "How the food is produced and the sustainability of the processes used is the real issue.... Localism is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle."

3. Consumers often travel fair distances to purchase food and this also adds to energy consumption. This is especially true if buyers go to several places. McWilliams quotes one expert who says, "any environmental benefits obtained by purchasing local produce from the farmers' market across town were quite likely nullified the moment you drove past the supermarket."

4. A huge portion of energy use in the food life cycle occurs in the kitchen. This can take the form of wasted food - a growing problem in the developed world. An American study showed that 14% of all food purchases are thrown out. Another source of energy use is in preparation and storage. Many fridges, freezers, ovens, and stoves are not at all energy efficient. Also, some methods of cooking are extremely wasteful, especially if they include prolonged use of heat or small amounts of food cooked.

5. Popular thought is that eating and buying local food is a political act and can improve everything from the land to communities. However, not all local farms are run in a sustainable and energy efficient way. Furthermore, the local food infrastructure can rarely be scaled up to meet demand if all consumers switched to rely on it.

6. Many areas can not produce enough food to feed their local populations. Climate and soil conditions preclude some parts of the world from eating only local food. Even those who can would only be able to do that with limited diets and by first building plants for canning and preserving in all local areas. More resources would potentially be used processing food produced locally than would be expended transporting food from larger plants elsewhere.

7. Small, local farms have lower yields than larger farms. More land would have to be used to produce the same amount of food. Many of these farms would need extensive irrigation to survive in water-stressed areas. All this uses more energy.

8. Finally, many more people would have to choose farming as a career if the world was to eat local food. McWilliams says it would require an unprecedented occupational shift.

I found all this to be very sobering reading.
Food miles are clearly not an accurate reflection of the environmental impact that our food makes. I realise that the issue of ethical food is much more complex that I imagined and becoming well informed is a high priority if I am to make good decisions in the future.

At the same time, there are things you and I can do now to make our energy impact less harmful on the environment. We can start making improvements to our habits today. Here are a few ideas.

1. Plan "energy efficient menus". Cook several things at once, and do this as quickly as possible. Eat more raw food.

2. Use energy efficient appliances, especially the fridge, freezer, oven, and stove.

3. Eat less food! Only buy the amount that is necessary and don't waste any of it.

4. Walk or cycle to buy food. Combine shopping trips when driving and buy in bulk if possible.

5. Ask lots of questions. Learn more about where our food comes from and how it is produced.

Thanks a lot to Julie for picking such a thought provoking book. I have learned a lot and am already making changes in my kitchen.
I am looking forward to seeing what other Kitchen Reader members learned from our November books about locavorism.

Now is a great time to join the Kitchen Reader. We are reading some great books in 2012. Why don't you ask for one of them on your Christmas list?

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