For those of us trying to make more sustainable choices within our daily lives, the decision to buy local produce appears to be an obvious next step. The transportation sector contributes nearly one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries. It seems logical then that cutting down on the distance between consumers and producers should also have a direct impact on emissions. For this reason the last few years have seen a push for food miles labeling particularly in Europe. However, many critics of food miles feel that this system is at best tokenistic and in some cases does more harm than good.

The food miles debate highlights a clash between differing sustainable development agendas. From an environmental perspective, encouraging consumers to alter their purchasing patterns and limiting transportation emissions can only be a good thing. However, from an economic development point of view, food miles labeling can damage important industries in poor countries.

The article concludes food miles are an inadequate measure of the ecological impact of a particular food and suggests more rigorous analysis including:

* Transportation measurements that include all the distances involved in production and distribution, as well as final food delivery (one item is often harvested in one location, processed in another, packaged elsewhere before being sent to a regional distribution center and finally a retail store);
* Allowances for different means of transportation and fuels;
* Emissions associated with packaging, storage procedures, harvesting techniques and water usage;
* Different emissions factors based on methods of cultivation. For instance, the UK Department for International Development have found that ‘the emissions produced by growing flowers in Kenya and flying them to the UK can be less than a fifth of those grown in heated and lighted greenhouses in Holland’;
* An analysis which includes all greenhouse gases. Most studies incorporate only the carbon emissions associated with particular foods, but other greenhouse gases with varying global warming potentials also play a key role;

World Resources Institute:

(via Appropedia)