Food Miles and the Locavores Dilemma

The picture at right is a familiar one for those of a certain generation but likely a mystery to anyone born in the mid-1970s and beyond. These empties would be collected a few times a week from one’s front step and replaced with full bottles by someone called a milkman.

This kind of home delivery of a food staple like milk has all but disappeared worldwide in part due to changing household economics along with matters of convenience and choice. The main culprit however is the disappearance of the local dairy farmer and the centralization of milk processing and packaging at mega-dairies.

The pushback to this kind of amalgamation of dairy and other kinds of farms, is articulated in the local food movement – members of which are sometimes called Locavores.

The argument is centred around something called “food miles” –  basically the farther food has to travel by plane, train or truck, the worse it is for the environment. Of course purity of food, improved taste, preservation of farmland and community cohesion are also good reasons to become a locavore…

In fact, eating local has become part of the lexicon of environmental no brainers – like taking public transit to work, recycling, and using compact fluorescent bulbs instead of the incandescent variety.

As with any issue in an MYP Science class though, we need to encourage students to look a bit deeper. There are dissenting voices out there, and to find one you need look no further than that most distant of imported foods, New Zealand Lamb. It’s hard to imagine a food item with more stamps on its passport but a recent study calls into question the way food miles are calculated, insisting instead that the entire “life-cycle” be considered in the calculation.

See if your students can come up with a list of costs – outside of transport – that might effect the “footprint” of the meat people eat. Things like fertilizer, feed, water, packaging disposal, harvesting techniques, use of renewable energies, and dozens more.

Once these are factored in, a lamb chop traveling the 18,000 km from Wellington to London by boat produces less than a quarter of the carbon dioxide of its local British cousin. This is mostly because the Kiwi sheep feeds off incredibly productive clover fields while the Londoner must be given feed to supplement the relatively poorer pastures in the UK.

Similar studies have been done with dairy products – by centralizing milk production, the secondary products like cheeses, yoghurts, etc. have drastically reduced food miles, and the same goes for certain kinds of fruits.

And depending on where you live, eating locally might not provide a nutritious and balanced diet. In this case an exclusive locavore diet could be problematic.

So, before we bemoan a bygone era where the milkman delivered and lamb came from around the corner, we should be sure we consider all the information in making a sound decision.

  • Tim Cunningham
    May 10, 2011

    I think the Big Idea behind your post, Barclay, is to have students challenge this idea of ‘received wisdom’. Call them what you will “urban myths”, “the way it is” or as you call them “ecological no-brainers”, we need to have our students challenge them.

    I once read an article in a similar vein. Living in the UK, better to eat prawns caught in the north Atlantic rather than Thailand, right? Hmmmm, very much depends on how you calculate the carbon miles involved. The answer wasn’t quite what I expected, and on the way, I learned a ton about prawn harvesting…!

  • Michelle Schwimmer
    October 19, 2011

    The connections that were brought to my attention was the fact that how can we teach students to “Consider all the information in making a sound decision.” How do we teach students to maximize where they gather their information and at the same time don’t elevate their stress level. We all know an adult or two that have a difficult time making decisions; some of these decisions have involved zero reflection and consideration. At least with my current student population, decision making even at a basic level, for example, what they want to take for an elective can create anxiety to the point that they shut down.

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