As modern food production and distribution becomes ever more complex and globalized, a “buy local” food movement has arisen. This movement argues that locally produced food is not only fresher and better tasting, but it is also better for the environment: Because locally produced food does not travel far to reach your table, the production and transport of the food expend less energy overall. The local food movement has even coined a term, “food miles,” to denote the distance food has traveled from production to consumption and uses the food miles concept as a major way to determine the environmental impact of a food.
This Policy Primer examines the origins and validity of the food miles concept. The evidence presented suggests that food miles are, at best, a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production. At worst, food miles constitute a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption and the environmental impact of modern food production and the affordability of food.
The course of the debate over food miles is nonetheless instructive for policy makers. It highlights the need to remain focused on the issues that are important—in this case, the greenhouse gas emissions of highly subsidized first-world agriculture, the trade imbalances that prevent both developed and developing countries from realizing the mutual benefits of freer trade, biofuel subsidies, and third-world poverty. With the population of the planet growing rapidly, numerous food-policy issues other than food miles should preoccupy policy makers.