LIKE MANY PEOPLE living in Ireland, I get my food from afar. Most of it comes by boat to England and then by lorry although some comes by air in the cargo holds of African and South American flag carriers. I feel no shame buying some products from overseas, especially when I cannot source the same item locally. Moreover, I feel no shame buying items with a unique taste or function instead of settling for a lower class Irish product. And because I am a creature of habit, some of the things I buy cost me more and deliver less value than the nearly identical item crafted or grown down the road but I buy my stuff where I've developed a relationship with the producer and that's it. Many of my Green friends despise my attitude as they ramp up planning barriers to large supermarkets in small communities in southeast Ireland. Their argument sounds logical--produce it locally, maintain the skills base of farmers, craftsmen and factory laborers and we will have a self-sustaining economy. That argument does not carry even in cloisters of Amish farmers or for communities bound by religious ties. Unless you are monastic, you deserve to enjoy the spices from abroad and today's the spice routes include stops at electronics and clothing factories.
Part of the Green Party programme for Irish government included a push for product labels that documents how far food has traveled to get to market. Informed consumers could then vote with their pockets and opt not to pay for things that inflict environmental damage due to lorries polluting the air, ships churning through the sea lanes or aircraft burning holes in the ozone layer.
This seems well and good, until you examine the alternatives. First, there is the matter of diversity. The nuns I help support with their food kitchens in New York City need to get Red Russets from Idaho since they snap-fry the best. They have discovered the best marbling in steak comes from meat that comes into NYC from Chicago's stockyards. And who in their right mind wants a New York orange over a Florida orange? The fresh food market has long legs. The best fresh is often three or four days from fresh-picked.
In a New York Times article, James McWilliams unpacks the arguments surrounding food miles. He points to research done by Lincoln University in New Zealand that challenges the premise "food miles automatically mean greater fossil fuel consumption". The peer-reviewed research offers "compelling evidence" suggesting "it all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production." These "factor inputs and externalities" (i.e., water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation, amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs) offer surprising conclusions.
"Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit."
Green politicians need to consider life-cycle measurements in their matrix of sustainable development. New Zealand’s most prominent environmental research organization, Landcare Research-Manaaki Whenua, explains that localism “is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle than during transport.” The British government’s 2006 Food Industry Sustainability Strategy similarly seeks to consider the environmental costs “across the life cycle of the produce,” not just in transportation.
I will eat local when I can afford it. I won't buy an organic product if I've just tossed some of the same product out as waste. I also won't buy something that needs to be refrigerated or frozen if a more durable option is available. I want to maintain a diverse and healthy diet and that's not possible in the rainy climate of Ireland. Food will have to travel before it gets to my table. I will do my part and continue walking to my supermarket and I will fill a small tote bag with produce from local farmers' markets on Thursday but I won't contribute to impoverishing an agrarian society by refusing to buy its bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes or relish. I will lobby local politicians to reduce tax on alternative energy solutions, both for transport and fixed structures.
And I won't feel guilty with the knowledge that no more than 30% of my food was grown or processed on the land mass of Ireland. Getting food over long distance is not a bad thing because true sustainability is rarely a accomplished through a single dimension.
James McWilliams -- "Food that travels well"
Barbara Kingsolver -- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life ISBN-13: 978-0060852559
James E. McWilliams -- A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America ISBN-13: 978-0231129923