09 12 17 Beyond Food Miles

by eric rempel

Fundamental to the thinking behind this Transition Initiative is a conviction that our current consumptive lifestyle is not sustainable – that cheap energy prices will not continue much longer, and that human generated pollution cannot continue to overload the environment without serious consequences. We need to find simpler ways of living.

Last week in this column we suggested that there is merit in being conscious of the distance the food we consume travels before it gets to our dinner plate. After all, transport equals fossil fuel use! The “Hundred Mile Diet” has also tended to focus thinking on the distance food moves, but to think that the “Hundred Mile Diet” merely addresses the distance food moves in an unfortunate over-simplification.

Seasonal eating is as much a part of responsible living as eating local produce. Most of us disregard season as we plan our menu. Lettuce and tomatoes are just as common on our dinner plate in January as in June or September. But even with minimal reflection we realize that fresh vegetables eaten in January, no matter how they are produced or transported, will consume more fossil fuel than these same vegetables eaten in season. Responsible eating may mean that we limit our consumption of off season vegetables. This may mean that we eat more local cabbage, squash and root vegetables in fall and early winter. It may mean that we consume more locally preserved vegetables in later winter.

If we are determined to eat lettuce in January, an alternative to trucking this lettuce from California is to grow it locally in a greenhouse. It certainly can be done, and if we apply only the “food miles” criteria, this has much merit. But applying the “food miles” criteria alone, ignores the energy necessary to heat a greenhouse in Manitoba in January!

It is time we considered the potential of solar greenhouses. As long as we have cheap energy and want summer vegetables in mid-winter, a solar greenhouse does not make sense. Solar greenhouses will not put tomatoes on our table in February, but they will allow us to greatly extend our growing season – and we may just have to do without summer vegetables for a part of the winter.

The National Post carried an opinion piece this past week suggesting that a focus on eating local produce was misplaced. In support of this contention, the article asserts that New Zealand lamb landed in London results in less carbon emission than lamb grown in the UK. Their conclusion – eat New Zealand lamb. Well maybe, but if the carbon footprint is indeed as high as they say, a more sensible conclusion may be to avoid eating lamb. Surely the eating of lamb is not essential to a prosperous lifestyle. But the contention of this National Post article points to another problem: “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” I can believe the confined rearing of lamb in the UK could  result in the CO2 emissions cited in the article. But there is another way! Maybe lambs raised in the UK should not be raised in confinement. In the UK, lambs were range raised long before it became popular to raise lambs in confinement.