By Max Fawcett
I’m sure J.B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith, the Vancouver-based co-creators of the 100-Mile Diet phenomenon and authors of the book of the same name, are nice people. Really nice, even. But if the road to hell really is paved with good intentions, then the two of them have spent the last five years laying down their own private stretch of blacktop.
In Canada, the emphasis on a diet defined by local provenance was once the exclusive domain of unrepentant hippies and other patchouli-friendly social groupings. That changed in 2005, when MacKinnon and Smith unwittingly set a revolution in motion through a series of articles published on their effort to eat locally and the challenges associated with doing so. The articles, which were published in The Tyee, a Vancouver-based news website, would go on to form the basis of a book published in 2007 that would spend weeks on a number of major domestic best-seller lists. It also encouraged thousands of Canadians to reassess their relationship with food and its attendant environmental impacts.
Concerns about the way food is produced, processed and ultimately consumed aren’t new to Canada or North America. Farmers markets, the organic food designation and other iterations of what’s now known as locavorism were making steady cultural gains throughout the last two decades. But it was MacKinnon and Smith’s book – in Canada, at least – that gave the local food movement and its values a much wider airing and audience. Suddenly, eating local moved from the fringes to the mainstream, and restaurants, food manufacturers and grocery stores did their best to make the appropriate adjustments.
There’s just one small problem: the local food movement is built on a lie.
While advocates like MacKinnon and Smith do occasionally bring forth other arguments in favour of local food – the fact that organically grown food tastes better, for one, or the value of supporting local farmers – their case is rooted in the idea that food from afar is more harmful to the environment than food grown close to home. But while this argument appeals to common sense, it is also demonstrably false. Yes, a head of romaine lettuce grown in your own backyard is far better than one produced in some agri-business complex in southern California. But most choices aren’t nearly so clear-cut, and the element of distance is far less important than locavores make it out to be.
The first flaw in the distance-based case for local food is that not all kilometres are created equal. The global economy thrives on efficiencies, and there are few areas in which that’s more true than the transportation networks that move everything from food to Family Guy DVD sets. As it turns out, the distance that a bushel of apples travels – its so-called food miles – isn’t nearly as important as how those kilometres are traversed. Ironically, there tends to be a direct relationship between how far a product travels and how efficient the modes of transport are that take it that distance. By way of example, according to a 2005 study conducted by the British government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that sought to investigate the utility of “food miles” as a metric for measuring the environmental impacts of food production and distribution, a British consumer who drives 10 kilometres to buy green beans grown in Kenya expels more carbon per-bean than the plane that flew them from Kenya in the first place.
More problematic for local food advocates is the fact that the carbon emissions associated with the transportation of food only accounts for a small percentage of the overall total attached to the process that takes it from seed to stomach. According to a 2007 study written by Carnegie Mellon University researchers Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews, the overwhelming majority of carbon emissions associated with food occur during the production stage. According to their study, 83 per cent of emissions are products of the production phase, while only 4 per cent can be directly tied to the transport of food products from producer to retailer.
As anybody who’s tried to grow tomatoes in Vancouver understands, every crop has an ideal climate, and efforts to produce them elsewhere inevitably require certain forms of human intervention. And so, here we find another unfortunate irony: by reducing the distance a product has to travel – say, by growing green beans in a local greenhouse rather than shipping them from Kenya – we often end up increasing the carbon emissions associated with their production.
Examples abound, but two will have to suffice in the context of the current discussion: first, a 2008 study from the University of Toronto found that strawberry farms in California yield, on average, 17 times more than their Ontario counterparts; second, the DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) study noted that British farmers generated 2,394 kilograms of carbon dioxide during the production of a tonne of tomatoes while their Spanish competitors only produced 630 kilograms. In these and hundreds of other cases, choosing the local product is actually much, much worse for the environment.
Yet for all its flaws, the argument in favour of local food still serves some useful ends. Anything that encourages our ever-more-corpulent society to become more familiar with the rhythm of the seasons and the supply chains that deliver their food to them is a step in the right direction. As such, even if the widely propagated idea that local food is good for the environment isn’t actually true, the fact that it has stimulated so many people to reconsider their dysfunctional relationship with food almost makes up for it.
Unfortunately, the preference for local food appears to be rapidly evolving into another tolerated – sanctioned, even – form of social prejudice. I suspect it won’t be long before we treat people who buy their produce at Walmart with the same scorn we currently reserve for habitual smokers. In truth, this may be the 100-Mile Diet’s most appetizing feature of all to its adherents. It may not provide them with the same bounty of actual calories that a plate of factory-farmed chicken wings or a bowl of guacamole (in December, no less – the horrors!), but it keeps them positively stuffed when it comes to their moral equivalent.
MacKinnon, for one, appears to be getting a little bit fat. Take the language in this passage from one of his Tyee articles in which he discusses the dilemma he faced once he and Smith had completed their year of eating locally. “We did not have the scorned Digby scallops with mango sauce at home, but instead went out to dinner at Vij’s to celebrate. We made sure to order the jackfruit appetizer. ‘I bet that’s from really far away,’ I said, giddy that we were doing something impure.” This is language that ought to be familiar to anyone who’s studied religious history, but it’s not the only time in the piece that MacKinnon invokes religious language to describe the virtues of eating locally. “Going into a supermarket and buying whatever we want seems like a form of excess, a sin,” he writes.
This faith-based rhetoric might suit MacKinnon’s self-understanding as a kind of secular prophet, but it does little to help the rest of us lead more environmentally responsible lives. In truth, by casting the discussion in such binary terms – good and bad, sinner and saint, pure and impure – it actually inhibits constructive efforts to better understand the environmental consequences of our diets, which is, as I understand it, the goal of the local food movement. The truth of the matter is that green beans from Kenya or lamb from New Zealand are often better for the environment than locally-sourced equivalents, and we’d do well to adjust our diets accordingly. Efforts to impose an Orwellian shorthand – local food good, food from afar bad – may satisfy our unfortunately common desire for easy answers and expeditious shortcuts, but they don’t get us any closer to making the kind of responsible decisions that local food pioneers say they want us to make in the first place.