LAKE MACBRIDE— If U.S. fuel prices were the equivalent of gasoline in France at $8.52 per gallon this week, perhaps the discussion about food miles would be more meaningful. Food miles are the distance over which a food item is transported from producer to consumer, as a unit of measurement. In theory, it is better to grow food locally, and use less fuel.
Food distribution and related costs are a social construct that makes transportation seem inexpensive, or irrelevant to what we find in grocery store aisles. Our food distribution system considers an economic model, with many actual costs— such as global warming pollution and federal subsidies of all kinds— remaining unrecognized. Unrecognized costs drive the current producer to consumer model and most people won’t get beyond the basic fact that transportation costs don’t matter much when picking an item from the bin or shelf. It isn’t clear they should.
Where advocates of local food may have gone wrong is using the idea of food miles as a place holder for complex, flawed arguments. Costs are costs, and a producer has to recover his or her financial production costs when the consumer buys an item. Using any complex argument, including food miles, as a place holder seems a diversion. Such talk belongs more appropriately in a sales and marketing context as a form of puffery.
What would be better is to create a local food system that competes on price and value, using existing financial structures. I’m not sure that is possible given the current, labor-intensive state of sustainable agriculture. To say consumers should be willing to pay more for organic lettuce because it was locally grown at a higher net cost is a non-starter. Society teaches us that organic lettuce is a fungible commodity, and if everything is the same, and one head costs $1 and the other costs $1.75, what reason is there to spend more?
Local food producers would do better to leave food miles out of their arguments, and create real value in the form of tasty food that people want to buy. They should recognize such value is subjective, the playing field is not level and therefore, growing a local food system will not be entirely rational, or scalable the way well capitalized operations are. Recommendation? Leave food miles in the rear view mirror.