During the 1990s, UK food expert Tim Lang coined the term ‘food miles’ to indicate the distance that an average item of food travels from farm to fork. This has been steadily increasing over the past two decades, and in recent years has been singled out as a growing contributor to climate change.
Supermarkets in particular tend to stock produce grown at a distance from the place of sale. This is often air-freighted and then transported via centralised distribution networks. Furthermore, produce is commonly made available out of season and kept in energy-hungry refrigerated storage for an extended period before appearing on the shelves.
A quiet revolution
Food politics in North America is often framed in terms of agribusiness (sometimes dubbed as the ‘industrial’ food system) versus family farms. The issue of food transportation is receiving growing attention, and some people who are aware of what is at stake have been looking for a tangible way of making a positive protest. Often this involves supporting locally-grown food systems in an attempt to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint.
It all began with Gary Paul Nabhan, an author and activist whose 2002 book Coming Home to Eat detailed his experiences during a year spent sourcing foods that had been grown, gathered, or fished within a 200-mile (320km) radius of where he lives in Arizona. Arousing rave reviews, it celebrated the sensual properties of food and pointed to a rediscovered sense of place.
Perhaps inspired by Nabhan’s example, in Spring 2005 a Vancouver couple named Alisa Smith and James McKinnon began a ‘100-Mile Diet’ experiment that was to last for a year. In embarking on this journey, they were aware that according to the Worldwatch Institute the average item of Canadian food has travelled somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometres. This represents a 25% increase since 1980.
Being relatively media-savvy, Smith and McKinnon were soon caught up in a whirlwind of media interest. As an idea whose time seemed to have arrived, the 100-Mile Diet spread by ripple effect up and down the west coast, and then across North America. Time Magazine featured the headline Local is the New Organic on its front cover, a phrase that became a slogan for the embryonic local eating movement. As the 100-Mile Diet circled the globe, it has started to influence the range that supermarkets choose to stock. The UK supermarket chain Tesco now has its own local food section.
A year-round hundred-mile menu was introduced by the Raincity Grill in their home city, while Santa Barbara (California) came up with the idea of creating a 100-mile label to identify local producers. In San Francisco, a group of four women coined the term locavore to indicate someone who sources their food from within the region. Last year, the Oxford American Dictionary chose locavore as its Word of the Year, awarded to new English usage that has recently appeared on the scene.
In Australia, a few cafés, including Sarah’s (Adelaide), The Locavore (Stirling, near Adelaide) and 100 Mile (Melbourne) endeavour to source as much of their food as possible from close to home.
The 100-Mile Diet is frequently presented as an interesting challenge, sometimes even as an adventure. The first step is to find a compass and pencil, marking a 100-mile radius from your home on a map. This represents the so-called ‘foodshed’ available to participants.
One appealing aspect of the 100-Mile Diet is its flexibility. It can be limited to one community meal, or can involve household participation over a day, week, month or year. Alternatively, the circle can be drawn at 150 miles, 250 miles, or the diet can be extended to food grown within one’s home state. Attempting the diet as a group has the advantages of extra moral support coupled with increased scope to network useful information. At Powell River on Canada’s west coast, hundreds of people signed up to a 50-mile diet, choosing anything between 25-95% of their total intake.
Before commencing, decide how purist you are going to be. Many people find coffee hard to give up, and some don’t feel like entirely cutting out salt. Decide in advance whether exceptions can be made for restaurant meals, and forbidden food offered by sympathetic friends. If buying foods such as eggs or meat, does the animal feed also have to meet 100-mile criteria? When visiting other areas, Smith and McKinnon stuck to foods coming from within 100 miles of wherever they were staying, and the necessary research would obviously have required significant time and effort.
Especially for those people who are pioneering the diet in a particular locality, extra time is required for tracking down growers, asking retailers questions, and often travelling longer distances to pick up supplies. A higher degree of forward planning is needed. For those used to ready meals, the work involved in manually preparing food, including the forgotten art of bottling or preserving, can initially come as a shock.
Making dietary shifts
Nearly all locavores have quickly learned that eating exclusively from within the region means a restricted choice. The first no-no is processed food, unless every listed ingredient meets 100-mile criteria. Participants may experience health benefits as a result, and can lose modest amounts of weight.
Often 100-mile dieters have abandoned veganism to include meat in their diet. Although Smith and McKinnon were nearly vegan before they started, they came to see local eating as more fundamentally important than choosing to be vegetarian, which fails to challenge the increasing globalisation of food.
In subtropical and tropical climates, any attempt at growing wheat would be quickly defeated by the rain and humidity. Fortunately, bread, cereals and flour can be substituted by such carbohydrate alternatives as sweet potato, taro and cassava. The couple managed without wheat and flour for seven months before tracking down a grower operating ‘under the radar’ on Vancouver Island.
Critics argue that local food is more expensive, putting it out of the reach of low-income households. Hopefully, though the diet and the local food movement can transcend associations with gourmet elitism to remain grassroots and inclusive. Although Smith and McKinnon initially found that the 100-Mile Diet had a negative effect on their bank balance, with experience they became adept at tracking down bargains, purchasing large quantities at a low cost and storing it in their freezer for later processing.
Today, the couple estimate that around 90% of their food falls within the 100-mile category. According to Smith ‘the longer you do it, the easier it is’. Like any initially unfamiliar practice such as recycling, eventually it can become second nature.
Building a local food infrastructure
For those who want to support local food, the options include community gardens, fruit trees in urban areas, farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture box schemes. Alternatively, you could grow your own.
Eating local keeps money circulating within the local and regional economies, creating more employment per dollar spent. Growers and producers on smaller acreages looking for ways of making their operations financially viable recognise that selling at a farmers’ market earns them 40-80% of the retail price, compared to 5-20% if it is sold in a supermarket.
Where small farmers are having trouble surviving in the current economic environment, the additional market created by hundreds of nearby 100-mile dieters may well be enough to keep them afloat, and indeed encourages the establishment of further small farms. Some restaurants have been directly linking up with local growers in a win-win arrangement that provides the restaurant with a reliable local supply while ensuring a reliable income for the grower.
Friends of the Earth in Adelaide has been actively promoting the diet as a means of achieving food sovereignty, a concept that can be extended from less developed nations into the industrialised world. There are obvious dangers in perpetuating a trend in which food production gradually disappears from some regions or countries to concentrate in others. If trade is disrupted due to a factor such as oil scarcity or war, such a vulnerable arrangement may break down, creating food shortages.
In addition to the economic advantages, others include :
- Improved freshness.
- Better taste.
- A far lower likelihood of genetically engineered or irradiated ingredients.
- The chance to eat more healthily, avoid additives and minimise the risk of getting ill from suspect imported foods.
- More sustainable growing practices, in most cases.
- A general avoidance of unnecessary packaging.
- Improved opportunities for personal contact with the grower, and to obtain detailed information about the techniques used.
According to Mackinnon, the diet ‘reconnects you to the people and landscape that produce your food’. Just the act of eating in season brings about a shift in awareness. Local eating often attunes one to natural rhythms, helps achieve a greater familiarity with the bioregion, and deepens one’s sense of place and its unique culture. Some participants in rural areas have learned to forage for wild foods.
For reasons of expediency, the global food system relies on a very limited number of varieties, and over the decades there has been an alarming loss of biodiversity among the range of food species that are grown commercially. Local growers often fill this gap by cultivating ‘heritage’ or ‘heirloom’ varieties, or by diversifying into more obscure fruits and vegetables that are unavailable in supermarkets.
Some question-marks remain
Although the idea of local food makes intuitive sense, not everyone is convinced that it automatically cuts carbon emissions. One such person is Tom Tomich at the University of California. He believes that the fuel used to transport a small element of a large truckload of produce across the country may be less than what would be used to ferry this food to a succession of farmers’ markets in a ute.
Furthermore, the issue of food miles comes some way down the list of factors that collectively determines the carbon footprint of a food item, namely the growing methods, processing, packaging, and method of transport.
Tomich believes that in order to reduce carbon levels, eating a plant-based diet is more important than a local focus: meat and dairy are two of the most greenhouse-intensive foods due to their high associated emissions of methane. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, livestock alone accounts for 18% of global greenhouse emissions.
In the Australian agricultural sector, chemical fertiliser use represents the second largest single contributor to emissions, underscoring the advantages of buying organic. Moreover, organic farming techniques are more likely to counter soil erosion, storing carbon in the soil rather than releasing it into the air.
The verdict for 100-mile dieters is that if their new habits result in a significant dietary shift towards meat and other animal foods, the carbon footprint of what is on their plate may actually increase. However, local animal-derived foods are likely to be responsible for fewer emissions than their factory-farmed equivalents as result of less intensive free range practices. Box systems are probably the most efficient in transport terms, as home deliveries direct from the farm remove the need for some individual food shopping trips.
Taking these points into consideration, local food still remains an important initiative that appears to have arrived on the scene in the nick of time. And sustainable food adherents remind us that instead of agonising between the local and organic options, we should just choose one and savour eating it.
Gary Paul Nabhan – Coming Home to Eat (Norton, 2002)
Barbara Kingsolver – Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins, 2007)
Alisa Smith & James McKinnon – The 100-Mile Diet (Random House, 2007)
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