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Simply put, the term “food miles” refers to the distance food must travel to reach the consumer's plate. The term was coined in the hopes of raising consumer awareness about the environmental and ethical issues bound up in the commercial agriculture industry. For consumers, learning and thinking about food miles can change the way they think about food and the environment. A greater awareness of the issue may also lead to changes in labeling laws and in the way food in general is handled.
When looking at food miles, analysts consider every step a food makes, from the farmer's field to the consumer's plate. This may include a stop at a processing facility, several plane rides, and extensive trucking. In packaged foods with multiple ingredients, food miles can rack up very quickly. In addition, of course, the consumer adds his or her fair share of food miles, by driving to a store to pick up the food. The more food miles, the more carbon emissions are associated with the food, and this is a concern to some ecological activists.
In addition to raising concerns about the environment, food miles also bring up ethical issues. Some consumers prefer to eat a locavorian or hundred mile diet, eating food which comes only from their local foodshed. Locally produced food tends to be fresher, and it may be more ethically sound. It certainly connects consumers with the source of their food, and sparks discussion about centralized versus local production. Encouraging local farmers helps local economies, and it also reduces the stress put on livestock through shipping, and on workers, since locally produced food is usually produced naturally, not on large factory farms with brutal conditions. Many local farmers also try to pay their workers a living wage, and they may support unions and other worker protections as well.
Foods transported within a nation can rack up a fair amount of food miles, but imported foods are a much greater concern. South America and Africa both ship large amounts of food to Europe and North America. In addition to depleting the natural environments of these countries through monocropping, excessive water use, spraying, and other poor farming practices, the shipping process also adds tons of carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere every year. Some of these foods may even be raised organically, but some activists would like to see these foods stripped of the “organic” label, arguing that the foods are not sustainably produced.
When looking at food miles, it is important to think about multiple issues in a rubric format. For example, it may be better for the environment to ship California lettuce to Wisconsin during the winter, rather than growing lettuce in a greenhouse which does not have high energy efficiency. The issue is also about seasonal availability, and what kind of crops can and should be grown locally. Bringing these issues to the forefront of the minds of consumers allows them to make informed, thoughtful choices.