Thursday, May 24, 2007

Food Miles and Sustainability

Last week the Monterey Bay Aquarium hosted its 2nd annual Sustainable Foods Institute panel about what 'sustainable' actually means. Food writers, organic farmers, and even a few folks from Walmart participated in panels on the future of food production, both on land and at sea. With an official government definition and enforceable guidelines about what 'organic' means, sustainability is destined to be the next hot button issue. But can we ever completely and absolutely define sustainability? Some are skeptical:

"Sustainability is a term like truth or beauty," said Fred Kirschenmann, a senior fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "We struggle but never get there." It means something different to different communities. "When asked if my farm is sustainable, I say, no," he said. "We're working on it. I have to keep changing, keep trying new things, keep adjusting.

"Sustainability is not something we can accomplish and be done with it. It is a matter of conscience, a moral commitment to a way to live," Kirschenmann told the group. Without question, the Earth's energy supply will dwindle, water resources will shift and the climate will change. "If we are serious about sustainability," he said, "we've got to think about it in [the context of] this future."

Tangentially, yet heavily related to sustainability is the term "food miles." Food miles is "a calculation of the environmental costs of transporting food long distances." Michael Pollan discusses this concept in The Omnivore's Dilemma, saying that when you eat that organic asparagus you buy from Whole Foods in January, you are consuming a fair amount of petroleum, as well. That's bound to make your pee stink.

Most people, I think, intuitively grasp this concept when it comes to produce and meat, but what about processed foods? Are you willing to give up that bottle of San Pellegrino or that sixer of Czech beer you love at Trader Joe's? How about French wine? And how the hell are you supposed to find locally grown coffee? I mean, here's a product that celebrates that it's Costa Rican or Ethiopian. A few years ago, some bloggers I was reading at the time were participating in the Eat Local Challenge. There were exceptions made in the challenge for food products not indigenous to the local geography. Things like coffee, chocolate, and wine could be brought in from far off locals, just as some food from the local region would undoubtedly be shipped out to places where they don't have Vermont maple syrup or whatever it is your area produces. This still leaves things like San Pellegrino on the outs. Maybe that's the price we have to pay for reducing our ecological footprint. I'll be honest -- I'm not sure I'm ready to become a food miles purist. I'd like to be, but it seems like a big sacrifice. So I put the question to you. How far is too far when it comes to eating locally? What are you willing to sacrifice, and what will they have to pry from your cold dead hands, to borrow a phrase from our gun-toting brethren?

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