What's all the fuss about? Forget, say the locavores, all those articles in the New Scientist that suggest that it takes an outrageous amount of resources (and a deeply confused sense of the justice that we owe nonhuman animals) to enslave nonhuman animals for completely unnecessary human consumption; eating locally grown animal products is better for the environment than veganism.
In an excellent and compelling paper that addresses the actual science behind global food production, Dr. Pierre Deroschers from the University of Toronto (Geography) analyzes the food miles proposal. He finds it lacking.
In his paper, “Yes, We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the ‘Food-Miles’ Perspective”, Desroschers argues that
food miles are, at best, a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production. At worst, food miles constitute a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption, the environmental impact of modern food production, and the affordability of food.Marketing? In agribusiness? Untruthful marketing? In agribusiness? News at 11!
Of course, those of us who can reason simply figured out a long time ago that a primarily plant-based diet was typically (although not absolutely) better for the environment than one rich in animal products. It’s also just common sense that not enslaving nonhuman animals is morally the right thing to do. I would be vegan even if it were bad for the environment, but it’s good to know that I can be a good environmentalist and a good vegan simultaneously.
What’s the big problem with food miles according to Deroschers?
The most problematic aspect of the food-miles perspective is that it ignores productivity differentials between geographical locations. In other words, activists assume that producing a given food item requires the same amount of inputs independently of where and how it is produced.In short, it ignores the fact that about 80% of the energy that goes into food goes into the production of the food, not in transport. Moreover, it doesn’t account for the surplus of sunlight energy in certain locales.
Further, Deroschers argues,
82 percent of the estimated 30 billion food miles associated with UK consumed food are generated within the United Kingdom, with car transport from shop to home accounting for 48 percent and heavy goods vehicles (HGV) like tractor-trailers for 31 percent of food miles. Remarkably, air transport amounted to less than 1 percent of food miles.Want to make a more serious impact in your food miles? Buy internationally grown fruits, roots, nuts and shoots, but take your bike to the market.
That doesn’t mean local food is necessarily bad for the environment, bad for consumers or bad for farmers. It just means that people who eat animal products because they were produced less than 100 miles away are not only morally derelict in terms of what they owe nonhuman animals, they're also very seriously fooling themselves into believing that they are doing something right for the environment. Instead, they're doing something that's definitely bad for nonhuman animals and potentially bad for the environment.
In short, you can be an environmentalist and a vegan. If you’re not vegan yet, you should take the rights of animals not be used as property seriously and go vegan today. If you're a vegan but not an environmentalist, you should consider seriously that animals (human and non) both need a sustainable ecosystem in which to have their lives. Abolishing the property status of nonhuman animals is the right thing to do, and it will eliminate animal agriculture as a key source of environmental harm. If you're not an abolitionist but what to learn more about the approach, read through my other articles of head over to www.abolitionistapproach.com.
Desrochers, Pierre and Hiroko Shimzu. "Yes We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the Food Miles Perspective." Mercatus Policy Series Policy Primer, No. 8. Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, October 2008.
The paper is also available electronically: