Let me be the first to say it: I think it might be okay for you to eat that mango?

I’m out on this limb because, when it comes to making green food choices, the beginning of wisdom is knowing how complex the whole matter has become.

While the 100-mile diet makes for a dramatic storyline and expresses the green aspirations of today’s shoppers, it doesn’t necessarily say a great deal about sustainable or equitable food.

Most people see me as a strong, not to say extremist, locavore. And I do believe that unless staples are grown close to home, an area loses its food security as well as its farmers and farmland, which spells doom for green space and the loss of both city and countryside jobs.

But using our food choices to make a meaningful difference requires some humility, because many of these choices can actually work at cross-purposes to each other. It’s time we realized that we’re in over our heads, especially if we try to make things right through shopping alone.

The way the food system works, it turns out, is a real trip. To understand how ridiculous the situation is, check out a study by the Region of Waterloo in which researchers describe Ontario’s game of “musical food chairs.” This is what happens when, for example, a truckload of apples leaves a local centre for a long-haul trip just as a truckload of apples from another faraway centre arrives.

“Redundant trade is needless trade,’’ says the study. “It is the simultaneous exporting and importing of the same product to the same region, regardless of the season.” In Ontario, for instance, we exported $69 million worth of tomatoes at the same time that we were importing $17 million of tomatoes, the report says.

But this superfluous importing isn’t the whole picture. Narcissists that we humans are, when we think about the eco footprint of our edibles, we think about miles travelled from farms to us and our forks. Unfortunately, that’s no indication of the actual wear and tear that matters for Mother Nature.

How to measure the eco footprint of that bok choy on your own? With difficulty. A holistic odometer of pollutants and greenhouse gases would factor in not only the distance from producer to retailer, but also the miles from the fertilizer and pesticide factory to the farm, from the package factory to the food processor, and the miles travelled by empty trucks on their return trips after making these deliveries of fertilizer, pesticides, packaging and produce.

Add to this the miles travelled by the kitchen scraps to the landfill or green box composter, from the package recycling box to the recycling factory (often in Asia), and – usually the biggest energy load of all – the miles travelled by electricity to keep perishable food from spoiling in large freezers and refrigerators, many of them in supermarkets with doors open to warm air.

The reality is, the experts have different ways of calculating all this. It’s an inexact and oft-changing science. But the consensus seems to be that the distance travelled from farm to fork accounts for only 10 to 15 per cent of the total energy consumed in a complete food life cycle that stretches, as food miles guru Tim Lang puts it, from farm to fart.

The enviro benefits of buying food from a farm close to home can easily evaporate if miles aren’t linked with other measures of sustainability.

There’s one issue people don’t often put on the sustainability scale, though it should be. That’s the well-being of farmers in the poorer countries of the global South, even if shopping with this in mind might sometimes feel like an ethical close call.

The world’s more than 50 million producers of coffee, cacao and tea – good for carbon content of the soil and for the health of consumers when sound practices are followed – depend on trade, since these crops thrive mainly in mountainous areas ill suited to many other kinds of cash crops.

When we buy long-distance but fairly traded products from ecological producers, we add income to grower communities. And coffee, cacao beans and tea leaves don’t need to be shipped by air; they can sustain the trip to overseas markets by sail or rail.

So cancel the miles-travelled argument for this one.

Scratch the righteousness again  when it comes to recognizing the rights of ethnocultural groups here to “culturally appropriate” foods. They may not be staying close to local food sources when they stay close to their homeland’s cherished food memories, often linked to spiritual or other expressions of identity. But sustainability also means sustaining unique cultural traditions in a homogenizing world.

Sure, local farmers can be encouraged to grow these ethno-specific foods instead of over-planting with the same old crops suited to an earlier generation of consumers. But at some point, respect for cultural diversity requires latitude for foods that can only come from another longitude.

The point is that shoppers pretty much have to make their food choices according to a few of their priority values. If you’re looking for low fat, low salt, low pesticide residue, that may not match up with what’s for sale that’s local. If fair trade’s your measuring stick, you won’t always be buying organic or non-corporate. (Do you choose fair trade bananas over Dole’s organic brand?)

If you’ve made the decision to shop at mom-and-pop stores because you support main streets over malls, you’re probably not going to be buying local, given the fact that our Food Terminal doesn’t give nearby produce a feature spot.

And if local’s your thing, enjoy, but don’t count on it being organic or even sustainable.

Myself, I’m a vegan for personal health reasons and choose local and organic wherever possible, but I also commit to eating with pleasure whatever friends serve.

Unless someone is prepared to make food choices the central issue of their life, we need some moderating guideline here. The 100-mile diet takes so much time and concentration, it can often become people’s only form of activism.

There are other action tracks besides the digestive tract, and all the promise of cooking up a storm notwithstanding, there are limits to what can be done by shoppers apart from citizens and voters.

As UBC planning student Zsuzsi Fodor puts it, we also have to consider the decision-maker miles in food policy. Since price remains the number-one determinant of food choice for 90 per cent of shoppers, there’s a need to stay focused on shifting public policies that make healthier, more local and sustainable foods more affordable than junk food.

My two cents’ worth for activist shoppers? Buy according to your passions, knowing you’re going to fall short somewhere, and confident that life offers more ways to express your personal values than at the checkout counter. After that, devote your energies to changing public policy.

As they say in San Francisco, fast emerging as a leading centre of food activism, “Democracy is a verb, not a noun.” Local, healthy and sustainable food needs a strong taste of that.


Here’s what we need to push for.

• Public incentives for local producers. Whatever its costs, we get it back in increased jobs and reduced highway expenditures.

• Government respect for right to know and food transparency: where it comes from, what’s in it, how it was produced, what kinds of seeds were used. Think of it as enabling our rights of the person under the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms.

• A quick ban on trans fats and added salt. The science is clear on both.

• Producer responsibility The companies that choose excess packaging, open-air freezers and the like should pay to undo the damage.

Originally published in NOW Magazine, August 27, 2009.

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