Friday, 21 March 2008

The Food Miles Conundrum....


Can anyone tell me where exactly the 'Food Miles' concept originated? Wherever it was, it's been a stunning PR success, if the result when you google 'food miles' is anything to go by - listing upon listing of people all greeting the idea as if it's the answer to the maiden's prayer. It's all so simple: climate change is a bad thing; climate change is caused by carbon emissions; planes emit carbon; food transported by planes are therefore responsible for carbon emissions; therefore food transported by air is A Bad Thing. Aha! So, we can feel better about ourselves and our contribution to the general good if we forswear bananas and pineapples (even though they are so tantalisingly cheap) and opt instead for Scottish Raspberries and Asparagus from the Mendips.....

The problem with that, is of course, that Life is rather more complicated than that. As a basis for socially responsible behaviour, it's about on a par with 'Yes, We Can' - which as Andy Hamilton so rightly pointed out is a political philosophy more worthy of Bob the Builder than of Martin Luther King.

Last year, apparently, over 70% of the harvest of green beans in Kenya ended up on supermarket shelves in the UK, and indeed something like one and a half million farmers throughout Africa are dependent for their livelihood on european customers. In Europe. And so, the process of denying ourselves the pleasure of eating Kenyan Beans in February in order to feel that we're doing our bit has the invisible knock-on effect of pulling the income rug from under the feet of those least able to withstand the impact as they fall. In effect, it's Lady Bracknell deciding to face the onset of recession by firing the under-gardener and the second parlourmaid - her minor bit of belt-tightening is their full-on crisis!

And, of course, the picture is nothing like as straightforward as the 'food milies' would have us think, in any case. How much more energy is used in growing produce 'locally' than in growing it in areas where the climate is naturally suited to the process? How much of the time is food transported long-distance in the cargo holds of passenger planes which would have been flying anyway - and so in reality the food miles calculation should be 'nil' (but isn't)? And how do the carbon emissions compare for transport by road of something which has been grown 'locally', on the other side of the country, as opposed to air-transport from halfway around the globe?

There's a strong whiff in all of this of very lazy thinking, of the with-one-bound-he-was-free variety. Which, as we all know, is almost never valid. Socially responsible actions should be taken on a properly-informed basis......and the problem is that the more informed one becomes, the more complicated the basis for the decision gets. For example, I've read that if the entire UK population changed one 100W light-bulb in their homes for a low energy bulb for a year, then the aggregate energy saving would equal 4.7 times the energy annually consumed in transporting food to the UK from Africa. It's a sufficiently unlikely figure that it might even have some basis in fact! But this entirely ignores the fact that energy-efficient light-bulbs actually need three times as much energy to manufacture than the other sort....so how do we factor that into the equation? The whole subject is a minefield, and I don't even pretend to have the answer to it. Frankly, it's as much as I can do to try and articulate the question intelligently!
What I know it isn't, though, is the process merely of self-righteously passing over the array of mangoes and Papaya in the Waitrose Fruit & Veg section, in favour of hothouse grapes and blueberries instead (probably before driving home afterwards in your gas-guzzling 4x4!).

And....why is it, by the way, that we hear so much about 'food miles', but nothing whatsoever about say, 'Prada Miles', or 'Playstation Miles', or 'Nike Miles'? Could it be something to do with the absence of interested groups (like the UK farming lobby, for instance) who are keen to make a lot of noise on the subject? Heaven forfend.....

Tonight's Dinner:

Salad of Garlic-sautéed Chicken Livers, with Baby Spinach and Lamb's Lettuce.

Moussaka; Borlotti in Cream.

Apple & Marzipan Tarts, with Crème Chantilly

2 comments:

Toffeeapple said...

Succinct as always! I, too, am confused by the whole thing. I listen to radio programmes about it, I read about it, I hear about it all around me and still there is no definitive answer. I could not live without bananas, grapes, oranges but am I adding to the problem? I will never know and frankly I am past caring now and will continue to live as I always have done, eating fresh food, not preocessed. (except for the wine, of course).

Pomiane said...

Well, I don't know about being 'past caring' - I think I'd be quite prepared to change my habits IF somebody were to make a persuasive argument that it was clearly the right thing to do. Nobody has yet, and until they do, I guess I'll just carry on as usual....