by Marion Nestle
May 5 2009

Food miles: do they matter?

Thanks to Dick Jackson, chair of environmental sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health, for sending me the latest paper arguing that food miles – the distances foods travel before they get to you – make no difference to climate change.  Eating less meat, say the authors, is what counts.

Never mind the assumptions on which such estimates are based.  I have no idea whether they make sense.  But before jumping to interpret this paper as an argument against the value of local food, Jackson suggests that we think about the other, perhaps less tangible, benefits of local food production.  He is a transportation expert so he particularly emphasizes reductions in air pollution, noise, congestion, paving, heat, and the removal of trees.  On the personal side, the benefits include more physical activity, “social capital” (the conversations and other transactions between consumers and farmers), income that stays in the community, and – not least – food that is fresher and tastes better.

I’ve always thought that the real benefits of local food production were in building and preserving communities.  I like having farms within easy access of where I live and I like knowing the people who produce my food.  If local food doesn’t make climate change worse and maybe even helps a bit, that’s just icing on the cake.  Or am I missing something here?

  • I totally agree. I’m a big supporter of both buying and eating locally and do talks all over town with this very message. Food miles is only one of the many benefits, as you point out. Most important to me is supporting local agriculture, small farmers, our local economy and (of course) that the food tastes better and is better for me. Plus there’s the bonus of knowing where my food comes from. In a climate of massive food recalls, I buy from local farmers, friends and neighbors, whom I trust to grow my food because they’re feeding their families with the same bounty. Food mile impact or not – Eating local is just better.

  • wonderful, filled with good sense. thank you for this reminder that there are many ways to contribute less carbon, eating less meat is perhaps the best, for so very many reasons.

  • Jon

    The climate change thing is more a “side benefit”. But yeah, local communities. Local foods are actually biggest in the cattle belt; the state with the strictest anti-corporate farming laws is South Dakota, where a constitutional amendment bans nearly every corporate farm except for farming co-ops and things like that. (Soy represents the opposite extreme, with 72% of soybeans being genetically modified. And of course, there’s always palm oil.)

    The article itself assumes meat is grain-fed, and that the vegan diets in question don’t contain palm oil or other foods that involve massive clearcutting (and human rights violations). But most vegans regularly consume palm oil in this country; Mother Earth News has even advocated palm oil consumption. And I refuse to believe, as PETA does, that Eskimos who go hunting produce less CO2 than if they imported all their food from a hundred different monocultures (as the rest of America does).

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  • Amy

    From what I understand there is an argument that local trucking is inefficient and more polluting than more efficient long distance container shipping/trucking. So that is why some argue local food is actually making environmental issues worse. I’m sure, as with most things, it is much more complicated than just that.

  • Sheila

    I thoroughly recommend the work of Sally Fallon, the Weston A Price foundation and especially Nourishing Traditions, Ms. Fallon’s cookbook and research collection. Especially if you have children. It’s all about healthy fats, lacto-fermentation and where meat fits into the larger picture re our health and esp. Neurological development. We struggle to feed our kids this way (locally, with very strict limits on GMOs and additives of all kinds) in NYC, but it’s worth it to see my younger daughter avoid so much disease as she had her first year (Meningitis, Pneumonia, asthma all before 1 year.)

  • How can food miles NOT matter? Especially when you think about the fact that most people do buy food not locally grown? Particularly here in Montreal, where the vegetable selection is terrible (and obviously trucked in from god knows where, given its state!), I would think that food mileage is an obvious problem, crazy study or no.

  • I guess I’ll have to read this whole paper but at first glance I agree with Laura – how can food miles not matter? A game of planes, trains and automobiles full of fossil fuels to deliver me some kiwis from Down Under? No? Not a problem? Hmm

  • The point that some commentors seem to be missing is that the meat indicated is specifically meat that is produced by factory farming. Simply not consuming animal flesh is not the point; “factory farms” or CAFOs are extremely environmentally destructive, including in the quantities of greenhouse gases they create. The paper suggests that it is more useful to reduce consumption of specifically this kind of meat than to become concerned with the mileage that food has been transported in order to reduce production of greenhouse gases.

    Of course, it is best for the environment, for the community, and for personal health to purchase and consume locally produced foods.

  • Jon

    Oops, I meant I refuse to believe that Eskimos who go hunting produce MORE CO2. HTH

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  • Having recently come from the carbon offset industry, I would have argued strongly in favor of reducing food miles, since they are a major source of emissions.

    While in the renewable/clean energy and carbon industry, I found myself wanting to expand the scope of sustainability to cover health and economic sustainability, in addition to the obvious environmental benefits.

    This “triple bottom line” approach to business is the best approach going forward in my opinion. Perhaps the biggest challenge to making progress is changing the established, regulated infrastructure to reward sustainable practices. Many of the larger companies have more to lose than gain, since they remain focused on the single bottom line of profit.

    There is much work to do, but lots of smart and hard working people are making important progress every day, especially around food.

    The next 3-5 years should be very exciting!


    Rob Smart
    a.k.a., Jambutter on Twitter

  • Howard

    Buying local is elitist. Famers markets are expensive. Yes, we eat too much meat – but looking at our culture as a whole – are we ready to take the next step beyond recommending increased consumption of healthful, “whole” foods? Should we not take “baby steps” with societal behavior changes? Too much focus on “buying local” will likely result in unintended consequences of stigmatizing healthful foods that are not local as inferior. We have stores that provide what seems to be an endless variety of healthful foods, yet we, as health professionals, constantly struggle with getting people to eat more healthfully. Come on people – be realistic.

  • Store bought foods are not as healthful as local foods, unless they are local. That’s the whole point.

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  • Celia

    I have actually spoken with one of the authors of the Environmental Science & Technology paper you link to. They do not argue against the value of local food. Their point is that if greenhouse gas reduction is your reason for saying that eating local is valuable then the evidence isn’t really in your favor. What they do say is that WHAT you eat is VERY important for greenhouse gas reduction. A vegetarian diet does more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than pushing the locavore concept to its limit of absolutely no transport. To my great sadness, as a ovo-lacto vegetarian, the vegetarian diet they mean does not refer to dairy, because dairy is second only to beef production in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Jon

    Yeah, but that all depends. The vegetarian diets I’ve seen seem to have this utopia of vast monocultures of wheat, soy, and palm oil, and a few exotic grains like quinoa (even if North American quinoa producers are in an intellectual property debacle with the Aymara people). With your choice of oils, you can basically choose which jungle you want to burn down.

  • Sam

    I feel that the value of considering food miles is in its sustainability, in addition to its environmental impact. Eating local not only contributes to communities but it is a safeguard against fluctuating energy costs or volatile trade relationships. The more local options we have, we are better off in the long run- for the environment and security.

  • Hugh

    @Howard – I appreciate your call for realism, and am well aware of the high prices at farmers market, but I think the elitism label is a little unfair. A hundred years ago, on average up to half a household’s yearly income was spent on food. That figure has dropped to the single digits, and we have used the money “saved” on iPods, cable TV, other luxuries….and drug/doctor’s bills.

    If we really truly want people to eat healthier, at some point the message has to get out there that it’s going to cost more than what we spend now. I once heard someone bemoan the fact that a dozen eggs from chickens fed purely free-range/organic food would cost $12. That seems astronomical, but compare the nutrition in a $1 egg to a $1 soda or candybar and you realize that it’s a much much better deal.

    @All – I didn’t read the study, but I cannot take seriously anyone who says “eat less meat”. Eat less factory farmed grain-fed meat? Sure. Eat less free range organic meat? Go take a hike – I refuse to pretend to be an herbivore. That’s like asking me to be a homosexual to reduce overpopulation – denying the biological reality that we are omnivores is a recipe for disaster.

  • Hmmn . . . a study claiming that food miles don’t really matter? Um, sorry, but my first thought after that is “So who funded this study? Someone in the shipping industry? Or was it PETA?” There have been numerous studies proving that what any study is paid to prove gets proven. I doubt this particular study was “hands-off” funded.

    The “Eat less meat” thing – well, that would depend on how much of what meat you normally eat (Duh!). An oversimplified, broad sweeping brush stroke such as this does not address reality. There are so many issues that this just doesn’t acknowledge.

    Eating locally does begin to address many of these issues. Eating food you know, eating food you tended and raised, eating food someone you can check up on tended and raised, eating food consciously grown/raised in ethical manners that consciously support the local ecology and economy, . . . I’m with you: Local matters. Local makes a difference.

    Great post!

  • Food Not Lawns! Get rid of the lawnmower and grow a garden. Plant fruit trees and berry bushes. Barter with neighbors.

    Mass produced food has only been around for about 100 years. Let’s not keep it around for another hundred.

  • Whether local or not, one often-missed beauty of knowing exactly what’s on your plate and how it got there is that you can provide direct feedback to the producer(s) or others that helped bring that food from farm to fork. A farmer or purveyor can then use that feedback – positive or negative – to make improvements in his or her program. Farmers are rarely rewarded for creating great tasting food. What an opportunity to create a win-win.

  • Shastan, had you bothered to look at the paper, you’d have seen the funding sources clearly stated, “This work was funded by
    an EPA Science to Achieve Results Fellowship to C.L.W., and
    National Science Foundation (NSF) MUSES grant 06-28232.”

  • Maya

    Assuming the maths and the assumptions in this study are right it seems to say that the local food movement is really more of a hobby than, as it proponents suggest, the vanguard for a new and more sustainable way of meeting people’s nutrition needs.

    Marion likes to chat to farmers, dig her garden, cook for pleasure etc… some people like to watch their local football team, go out all night clubbing, make model trains, skateboard whatever…its all good stuff but none of it stands up to the claim that ‘everyone ought to do this to make our society sustainable.

    This research seems to say that ‘eat less meat’ is a message that does stand up to this claim while ‘watch your food miles’ doesn’t.

    The big danger with the food miles approach is that it attacks the markets for food exporters in developing countries (Kenyan green beans, South African fruit etc…) who need the income just as much if not more than your local community.

    The ‘food miles’ concept has been pushed with a message about relative carbon footprints that this research seems to indicate just isn’t true.

  • This argument has been made before, especially by the Freakenomists in the NYTimes. I find it may be good science but wishy-washy logic.

    Food miles can and do matter; not if you are comparing apples to meat, but rather, obviously apples to apples. If you live in New York, which has less environmental impact, apples grown in-state or apples shipped in from Washington? Or put another way, just because one thing has an effect on emissions does not mean another thing can also have an effect. Or one more way, which thing CAN you do. For instance, you may be able to switch apples more easily than you can give up hamburgers.

    As to the containers/trains are more efficient. That may be true in the large sense, but it still does not mean things balance out. More importantly, do we buy our Chilean grapes at the dock? Do you think that this food-stuff is never subject to a panel truck?

  • I’m not sure whether to applaud Marion Nestle for calling attention to a paper that runs against the prevailing orthodoxy of the localvore movement or to be appalled by her attempted revisionism. A brief trip to Google will reveal that, for most localvores, reducing carbon footprint is the cake, not the icing, for food miles. For a more complete critique, see

    In saying, “I’ve always thought that the real benefits of local food production were in building and preserving communities. I like having farms within easy access of where I live and I like knowing the people who produce my food,” Nestle (correctly, IMO) states that eating locally is primarily about aesthetics. But what if it turns out (as may well be the case) that localvorism actually *increases* GHG emissions? How would localvores choose in that case?

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