University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Summer 2009

The Ideal Distance from Farm to Fork

Local food isn't always environmentally the best, says geography prof Pierre Desrochers

Photo by Cavan Images/Getty imagesNot long ago, some of the cafeterias on U of T’s St. George campus began serving meals made mostly from food grown in Ontario. The cafeterias work with Local Food Plus, an organization promoting food grown by local farmers. The goal – to reduce Canada’s carbon footprint by reducing the distance food travels – is worthy, says U of T Mississauga geography professor Pierre Desrochers, but is based on a faulty premise.

While a New Zealand apple eaten in Morrison Hall represents more “food miles” (the distance travelled from “farm to fork”) than the indigenous McIntosh – it doesn’t mean that the Ontario apple is the better environmental choice, says Desrochers. New Zealand apples are grown during our winter months so they don’t need to spend long periods in energy-guzzling cold storage, he says.

Desrochers challenges the popularity of the 100-Mile Diet in a paper published as part of George Mason University’s Mercatus Policy Series. The article has made him a virtual pariah to opponents of corporate agriculture. “The people who protest my paper circle together like muskoxen. They’re reluctant to consider the data. They’re angry at corporations but feel powerless to effect change. So they transpose their efforts to something they can relate to: food purchases.”

According to Desrochers, buying locally grown but economically uncompetitive products almost never reduces greenhouse gases. In the U.S., 80 per cent of the energy used to get food from the farm to the table occurs during food production. Transportation accounts for less than 10 per cent. He says western European consumers could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions if they bought milk solids or apples from highly efficient New Zealand producers rather than from heavily subsidized and much less efficient local producers.

“Long-distance food transportation by highly efficient diesel container ships represents only a tiny percentage of the total energy used in agricultural production,” says Desrochers, adding that cold storage or greenhouses use much more energy. “North Americans somehow forget that we have seasons.”

Desrochers says he is not against local food production. He says it works in some places, especially when the food is in season. But our ancestors shifted away from subsistence farming for good reasons – including to reduce the chance of famine. “Our modern food supply chain is a demonstrably superior alternative that has evolved through constant competition and rigorous management efficiency.”

Desrochers has no illusions of winning over the prevailing Local Food Plus faction that pronounces: Let’s go the distance so our food won’t have to.

“Until recently, my brother was a Quebec politician who represented an agricultural riding. I don’t know if I would ever be able to convince him that not buying from local producers is the right thing to do.”

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