Every day journalists churn out stories that are at best worthless and at worst dishonourable propaganda. Mostly it’s just the banal moron culture of ‘news’ about Heather Mills / Britney Spears and so on. Last Sunday the Observer published an article about the ‘myths of food miles’ which was difficult to define (you can read it here) but was so chock full of misinformation and wonky analysis that its worth responding to. My guess is that this is part of a concerted fightback from the corporate food world against the implications of the growing demand for local eating. Lets be charitable to Robin McKie and Caroline Davies, the authors and assume they’re deeply naive and not just abit thick.
Here’s a point by point rebuttal of the articles argument, such as they are. The authors argue:
1. “There is growing evidence to suggest that some air-freighted food is greener than food produced in the UK.” Is there? What is that evidence? Certainly none is presented in their article. Of course if I try and replicate exotic fruits in Caithness that’s going to be expensive and ecologically unsound. Nobody involved in the Fife diet argues that, as was explained to these journalists. All we are presented with is a series of ridiculous straw men.
2. “Mike Small argues that we should eat local produce and save the planet, an idea that has obliged his family – and a growing number of adherents to his cause – to eat meals of local lamb, pork and a great many dishes based on parsnips, beetroots, kale, potatoes, leeks and all the other root vegetables that typify the agricultural output of this wind-swept corner of Scotland. ” I haven’t obliged anyone to do anything. What’s windswept about Fife? Did Robin and Caroline visit and have a windswept experience?
3. “They even have their own name for themselves – locavores – and insist that their way is the only one to save the planet.” No we don’t insist any such thing. They’ve just made this up. We realise that food is just one way that we are all going to have to change our culture and our economy. This was explained to them.
Locavores is a pretentious sounding name we’ve never used.
4. “The idea that ‘only local is good’ has come under attack. For a start, food grown in areas where there is high use of fertilisers and tractors is likely to be anything but carbon-friendly, it is pointed out.” Well this is bloody obvious isn’t it? That’s why we use and advocate the use of organic food.
5. The they reel out a series of obscure ‘experts’. “‘The concept of food miles is unhelpful and stupid. It doesn’t inform about anything except the distance travelled,’ Dr Adrian Williams, of the National Resources Management Centre at Cranfield University. Cranfield University no less! Well of course miles by themselves is on aspect of a wider set of analysis you can apply to any food, but we’ve never argued any different. Cost is one other major issue, articulary so that poorer families can feed themselves decent food and organics move away from being an exclusive brand to a mainstream staple.
Writing in the observers sister paper, the Guardian, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, says the era of cheap food in the UK is over, and that the nation is “sleepwalking into a crisis”. He points out that the UK has an especially poor record on producing its own fruit and vegetables. “Ninety-five per cent of fresh fruit is imported. This is ludicrous in a country with 2,000 varieties of apples,” he says. More on an exciting urban agriculture project in Middlesborough here.
6. There follows an entirely spurious idea to persuade us that flying beans from Kenya is actually, somehow a good idea: “But a warning that beans have been air-freighted does not mean we should automatically switch to British varieties if we want to help the climate. Beans in Kenya are produced in a highly environmentally-friendly manner. ‘Beans there are grown using manual labour – nothing is mechanised,’ says Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones of Bangor University, an expert on African agriculture. ‘They don’t use tractors, they use cow muck as fertiliser; and they have low-tech irrigation systems in Kenya. They also provide employment to many people in the developing world. So you have to weigh that against the air miles used to get them to the supermarket.’
As I’ve just said, we advocate organic agriculture here. Behind this seems to be the suggestion that we are here to serve the market, not that the market is here to serve us.
But now we’re getting to the possible agenda that’s being pursued here: “In the words of Gareth Thomas, Minister for Trade and Development, speaking at a recent Department for International Development air-freight seminar: ‘Driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK.’ Is that true? I’d like to see how that calculations was made (!). But then, as was explained to the journalists, we advocate taking part in vegetable box delivery schemes and don’t drive about to collect our food. Though even if we did – we would be doing the same journey as someone driving to a supermarket to buy their Kenyan green beans.
7. Finally, they write: “Even if you could get a carbon label that accurately reflects a product’s impact on the environment and identify products that have high footprints, would you be right in boycotting them? In many cases, such as brands of coffee, these products come from struggling third world nations. Using our Western concerns with the climate as an excuse to increase poverty there has dubious ethical consequences.” Our Western concerns??? Not only is the West historically culpable but is also by far the greatest contemporary ‘carbon criminal’ and yet is is the developing countries who suffer the most from climate chaos now. This attempt to characterise concern about climate changes as some sort of fashionable Western fad is pathetic and entirely misleading.
In short this article is drivel. The issue of global warming and the imperatives of changing our world remains essential, despite industry, politicians and pliant journalists efforts to pretend otherwise. Should we have expected otherwise? Maybe not. This was after all in the Observer, the newspaper who’s last piece on the Fife Diet described it as being based in “Fife, a small island off the North-East Coast of Scotland.”