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Monday, December 26, 2011

Eating up the food miles

I recently heard a radio interview with Dr I. Eatwell (I can’t remember her real name but she was a Californian food-head) who told us about her weekly cycle jaunt out of the small town of Davis in California to pick wild herbs.  We were, of course, all supposed to gasp in admiration at her zeal to seek and eat local. In a sense, she was emulating the famous French aristocrat who suggested that, in view of the shortage of bread: "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" or “Let them eat cake”. Quite simply, there are not sufficient wild herbs to meet the gastronomic needs of the firm and courageous citizens of even a small town such as Davis. Moreover, since Dr I. Eatwell harvested the herbs before the seeding period, she selfishly pulled the plug on food chain sustainability. The concept of local food is elitist and unworkable for the general population. So let’s do the sums. According to Sustainable Table, we should confine our food choice to 100 km radius. Lets extend that to 120 km to allow for the area of a large city. That translates into about 4524 hectares which if farmed for wheat would yield 38,798,324 kg of wheat, translating into 27,158,826 kg of flour or 108,635,307,000 calories. Assuming a daily energy need of just 2,000 calories, we would have enough to feed about 150 persons a year.  So the theory works for towns with a population up to 150,000 and of course the nearest other town must be 240 km away, otherwise there would be territorial battles where their circles overlap. It just doesn’t work for today’s demography. Of course a few privileged elite can easily achieve this but its cake for the rest of us.

One of the smart things mad did which no other species achieved was the division of labour: “I’ll buy the peas you grow on your farm and you can buy tractor insurance from me”.  The chore of being responsible for the provision of our own food was passed on to farmers who in turn passed on responsibility for education, power and so forth. Many centuries ago, those farmers were local but as modern transport evolved, we bought food that was grown far away, often continents away. And so the high priests of healthy eating introduced the concept of “food miles” and “eating in season”. I will surely eat a strawberry this Christmas or find one on my champagne glass and I’m not in the least bit bothered that it might come from Spain or Greece. And I might concede that if I were to pluck a fresh strawberry in season in County Wexford it would taste better than the imported and out-of-season variety. But that imported and out-of-season variety still is unmistakably strawberry in every olfactory sense if you’ll excuse the pun (did I just punnet!). Not only does it taste and smell of strawberry, but it has the exact nutritional composition that the in-season County Wexford strawberry has and I can vary my diet to include imported and out-of-season fish, fruit, vegetables, yams and so on. The overall health of the nation would improve if we were to eat more fruit and more vegetables. Any implication that these foods have to be sourced locally and in-season is utterly unhelpful.

Food miles are another obsession with the high priests of health eating. The implication of counting food miles is that local is best and the greater the food mile the greater the sin. As ever, when put under the microscope, things are not so straightforward. An apple, grown locally and sold at the end of the season just before a new harvest, carries little mileage but it has consumed a significant quantity of energy keeping it nice and juicy through autumn and into spring. Without that energy consuming technological intervention, the apples would rot.   In contrast, a New Zealand apple, just harvested in that beautiful country and consumed in Dublin carries huge mileage but has used relatively little energy. Locally grown low mileage tomatoes require a glasshouse and yet more energy while imported ones are grown where the sun shines all day, yielding high mileage and low energy.  And of course, one of the biggest contributors to the energy cost of food occurs when it leaves the supermarket shelf. Driving there and back, freezing, chilling and cooking food all gobbles up energy. And of course, there is food waste. Sin scĂ©al eile, which, for the Sassenachs among you, translates into: “That’s another story”

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