Since Michael Pollan popularized the push to eat local food in his bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the concept of “food miles” has been something of a rallying cry and an organizing principle in the marketing of the local food movement. Among locavores and their sympathizers, the term seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the food system. Fresh grapes from Chile make their way to supermarkets from Maine to Minnesota, and even California. Major food conglomerates process commodity ingredients like corn, soy, and wheat into packaged food that travels across the country and across oceans before landing on a dinner plate. In a time when climate change is emerging as a widely accepted threat—perhaps the biggest threat—to the world as we know it, the concept of “food miles” alluringly invites us to take satisfying personal action where national and international governance have failed to forge an effective response to the warming planet. The term suggests that by acting locally, by eating locally, we can each do our own small, individual part to confront the enormity of this global problem—that shopping at the farmer’s market is a virtuous act of global citizenship.
This Essay seeks to demonstrate the limits of that notion and to suggest a different way of thinking about food and climate. Whether or not it is true that food travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches the American table, the concept of “food miles” is not one which we should construct policy around to address the food system’s contribution to global warming. This Essay seeks to bring to the discussion among American legal scholars and local food activists what is becoming increasingly clear to ecologists and other scientists who study the impact of the food system on climate: The distance between American fork and farm, while it may be a part of the climate change puzzle, is not a keystone. Fossil-fueled transportation accounts for a relatively small portion of the food system’s contribution to climate change. Far more important than transportation are the ways that farming is done, particularly the efficient uses of nitrogen fertilizer, the management of manure and livestock, and the clearing of forests for cultivation to provide food and energy (biofuel) to a growing world population.
This Essay will proceed in two main parts. In order to choose the most effective policies it is essential to understand what is known about the impact of the food sector on climate change. Part I places “food miles” in context by describing the ways in which agriculture (the cultivation of food) contributes to global warming. It does so not just by looking at today’s emissions from agriculture, but also by considering the climate impact of food production in future decades. Part II suggests a pragmatic policy approach to addressing climate change through the food and agriculture sector. It outlines a series of proposals, primarily to be undertaken on the international scale, that focuses on “low hanging fruit” by focusing on the sector’s most significant greenhouse gas emissions. It identifies five “Moneyball” strategies for smartly addressing the climate impacts of food production in the coming decades.
65 Maine L. Rev. 409 (2013).
Birdsong, Bret C., "From “Food Miles” to “Moneyball”: How We Should Be Thinking About Food and Climate" (2013). Scholarly Works. Paper 776.