At the time of writing, the people of Earth are concerned about food miles. I say at the time of writing because people are fickle and buzzwords are short lived so by the time you read this the people of Earth could be past food miles like they’re past school dinners and Communism and be concerned instead about cheese hardening, badminton rash or horse implosion.
The idea of food miles is that everything that ends up on your plate started life somewhere else, and that else could have been somewhere thousands of miles away. In 2003, liberal maniacs at The Guardian calculated the distance 20 items of fruit and veg had travelled, totalling it at 100,943 miles, most of which was by air. That’s a hefty carbon footprint. You’d have to have a petrol-powered Super Clown the size of twelve double-decker buses to come anywhere close to a footprint that size. And that doesn’t even make sense.
The point is, when you buy fruit and veg from around the world and bring them over on the most polluting form of transport we’ve invented you’re creating more carbon dioxide than necessary and bringing us one step closer to the Gore Apocalypse. It seems silly flying in a lettuce from Albania when some guy’s been growing one a few miles away. That’s where farmers markets come in. Local farmers take locally grown produce to market, travelling dozens instead of thousands of miles, and in a van instead of a cargo plane. There are a few decent farmers markets in Zero City. There we can buy free-range eggs, bread, oatcakes, cheese, honey, jam, chocolate, soap, a stack of fresh and often organic fruit and veg, and meat and fish if you eat that kind of thing.
Farmers markets – or locally grown produce sold at supermarkets – seem like the solution. Naturally, nothing is that simple. There’s a debate around the concept of food miles, and once you throw in the issues of organic and Fairtrade food you’ve got the kind of ethical dilemma we thrive on. And by ‘thrive on’ I mean ‘get worn out by’.
Food miles only tell you how far an item has travelled; that’s quite different to how much carbon it’s produced. When The Guardian filled its trolley it bought apples from America that travelled 10,133 miles. It’s unlikely your famer’s market will be 10,134 miles away so American apples look as polluting as… everything else American. But The Guardian’s apple didn’t travel here alone. Let’s say the cargo plane that brought it over was filled with 10,133 apples – admittedly, a made up figure that’s just useful as an example because maths and me have a beef. The 10,133 mile journey, and the carbon it produced, would be shared by the 10,133 apples on board, meaning each apple would only be responsible for one mile’s carbon. Even with hypothetical maths based on a hypothetical number of apples that changes things.
And things change further when you take into account the differences in agricultural techniques. According to a Guardian article from 2008, green beans in Kenya “are grown using manual labour – nothing is mechanised… They don’t use tractors, they use cow muck as fertiliser; and they have low-tech irrigation systems.” So buying beans from Kenya that have been flown in en masse could actually be better for the environment than buying locally grown beans that were produced with oil-based pesticides and tractors and taken to market in small quantities in a petrol powered van. This is ridiculous. Sophie had an easier choice than this. What are we supposed to do here?
And being Zeroes we’re looking for the ethical choice, not just the environmentally friendly one. Ignoring carbon for a second, if we buy fruit and veg locally we’re ruling out buying Fairtrade goods that would help the world’s poorest farmers and support the best long-term route out of poverty. I’m feeling nostalgic for the easy solution we had a couple of paragraphs ago. Those were the days.
Okay. Let’s try for some conclusions here. Or at least some compromises. This is supposed to be a Butterfly, not the keynote address at the annual conference of Indecisive Hand Wringers International – the date, time and location of which have yet to be confirmed.
1. Given that it’s not entirely clear which is the most polluting let’s choose Fairtrade produce over locally grown equivalents. If that’s the wrong thing to do environmentally we’re doing enough other things to feel okay about it and not fear bringing the end of the world.
2. Let’s buy locally grown produce if organic, if Fairtrade equivalents are not yet available and if in season (to ensure carbon-spewing chill-storage hasn’t been used).
3. Whenever possible let’s avoid buying produce which is not organic, not Fairtrade, and not grown locally because there’s just something quite stupid about shopping in Denmark for stuff grown round the corner.
And the main conclusion: This has been a pain in the arse. The sooner Britain turns its attention to horse implosion the better. Now there’s a clear cut issue for you.