What's the Fairest Way to Eat Food?

Over the past two years, student interest in food issues has skyrocketed. Undergraduates write us requesting detailed supply-chain information for numerous foods and lifecycle assessments of dozens of as-yet-unstudied items, and contributing ideas about pricing meals to reflect their "true cost"--as if that were calculable in a linear fashion. Many are passionate about local food, seeing it as anti-industrial and environmentally preferable.

"Food miles" and "farm to fork" come up frequently. Coined decades ago, these terms have become prominent in public discourse to describe the provenance of our diets. In short order two other terms may join them: "fair miles" and "fork to farm."

"Food miles" describes the distance food travels in the supply chain between the farm and the fork. One decade-old study of strawberry yogurt eaten in Iowa led to the oft-cited statistic that food travels an average distance of 1,500 miles. The paper never claimed to represent all food categories--and that estimate alone left out the container!--but the idea took hold. From my experience as a supply chain manager, I'd say that that estimate for average miles is grossly understated.

A new report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development makes the claim that consumers can harm the livelihoods of poor farmers in developing nations if they stop buying their produce.

Theoretically, "farm to fork" describes the path of food from the point of production to the place where it is eaten, but calculations usually stop well short of that point. It is extremely difficult to model how food travels after it gets to a commercial kitchen or retail facility, and especially how much food is wasted and where it goes once it is delivered.

Layer concerns about climate change on top of food safety scares, and it's no wonder that interest in knowing your farmer has grown enormously. The idea is powerfully simple and therefore appealing, despite many studies that have conclusively shown that transportation is just a small part of the emissions problem.

But transportation emissions aren't the only criticism of food miles as an idea. A new report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development makes the claim that consumers can harm the livelihoods of poor farmers in developing nations if they stop buying their produce. "High-value trade is critical to build rural economies that [could make them] resilient to climate change," according to co-author James MacGregor, "The trade in fresh produce is one part of a global solution to this challenge." The authors take aim at UK consumers whose winter produce largely comes from Africa, where most of the export-ready produce is grown by small farmers rather than large estates, as is the case in South America, which feeds the US and Canada.

The book isn't a total broadside against the "eat local" movement, however. MacGregor says, "Eating local food when it is in season is a critical element of a balanced diet, and is complementary to eating development-friendly foods out-of-season." But he's asking consumers to think of "fair miles" first, recognizing that there are social and ethical aspects to choices about where food comes from as well as environmental concerns.

Well said. But what foods are truly "development-friendly"? If Kenyan farmers use a disproportionate amount of water available to all Kenyans, is that okay? If a society is set up to export food, is it producing enough to feed itself if it doesn't get the prices it needs?

Another intriguing term has emerged from the national discourse on food. "Fork to farm" is a new word for an old idea: composting. A week doesn't go by without a dining hall manager somewhere asking me how to get started. Having focused intensively on reducing food waste as a greenhouse gas reduction initiative last year (and achieving great results, I have to add), we're at step two: figuring out what to do with the inevitable trimmings, egg shells and banana peels after 1,500 students have had lunch in one location.

Though we pioneered going tray-less in 2005 to discourage consumer food waste and over-eating, the bigger contributors to food waste are institutional: from the supply chain and the kitchen. Many schools are considering an expensive machine that cooks food waste and dehydrates it, reducing it to dirt--but dirt depleted of most of its nutrients. If you're in an urban setting and have done what you can to reduce food waste, this may be a reasonable (if not optimal) idea from an environmental perspective. If you've got land, or are buying great food from farmers not far away, however, it's a lost opportunity to turn leftovers into nutrients through composting. Increasingly, fork to farm efforts are going to complement farm to fork and give farmers a double opportunity to build a relationship with institutions.

Fundamentally, though, whether the call is for food miles or fair miles, or the emphasis is on who's what happens to leftover food, the common cause is striving for ethically-balanced diets. Bring on the new ideas and let's incorporate them.