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Pundit’s Mailbag — The Meaning Of Food Miles And Other ‘Green’ Terms

Our piece, C.H. Robinson Launches Our World Organics Line, brought a number of questions, less about the line than about this phrase in our comments:

Although we wish C.H. Robinson would drop the “Food Miles” language as that has now been clearly demonstrated to have no relationship to anything important and is just a marketing term, we are enormously impressed at the scope of C.H. Robinson’s ambition and its willingness to undertake a great deal to assist its customers.

This letter from a vendor is fairly typical:

I enjoyed the informative article on C. H. Robinson and organics.

I have a question as to one section in the article. Why does “Food Miles” not matter in regards to anything important? If a product is grown locally and shipped locally (or at least grown closer rather than further away), wouldn’t that be a positive thing in regards to the environment?

The answer is a decided “maybe,” and that points to why promoting “Food Miles” is not a good idea.

“Food Miles” is very simplistic because it takes one variable — the distance traveled — and uses it as a proxy for “good for the environment,” although this may not be so.

To use an extreme example: If I build a greenhouse outside of Minneapolis to raise bananas, it is true that I will have great “food miles” compared to imported bananas. Yet the energy used to heat the greenhouse will likely be much more than is used in transportation. So buying low “Food Miles” will hurt the environment.

Less dramatic, but just as true… They did a study in the U.K. on lamb and found that New Zealand lamb, which feeds on ample pasture land, gives off less carbon in its production and transport to the U.K. than British lamb, which is fed on feed raised by farmers who use tractors, etc. The point is that the difference in production efficiency can offset any savings in transport.

The bottom line is that “Food Miles” is too simple to tell us anything. This is why the British are now big on “Carbon Footprint” and “Life Cycle” studies. These are attempts to study the total impact on the environment from production through distribution and consumption.

This certainly is an improvement, at least theoretically. Done properly, these terms would at least mean something — as opposed to “Food Miles,” which means nothing.

Unfortunately, nobody has yet figured out any way to calculate these terms that A) is standardized — so they can be compared to one another; B) is non-arbitrary — so they are not subject to subjective whims of those doing the study; C) is variable — to take account of changes in CO2 output caused by different conditions — from weather to electricity source; and D) is accurate — if you did one for everyone and everything, it would add up to the right total.

Even if we got all this right, we still have the burden of conflicting values. In the U.K., the big issue is whether they should stop importing from Africa in pursuit of reducing carbon output and thus hurt some of the world’s most impoverished people and countries.

For a company such as C.H. Robinson in particular, preaching “Food Miles” is dangerous. This is one tiny label of the produce division of the company. Most of C.H. Robinson is devoted to helping people transport goods across the globe. The company should point out the environmental benefits that can be derived by efficiently transporting products from the place where they can be produced with least damage to the environment.

Many thanks to all those who asked about this line of thought.

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