The concept of “food miles” roughly measures “the distance food travels from where it is grown or raised to where it is ultimately purchased by the consumer or end user” (Pirog, 2005). The general reasoning underlying this concept goes that consumption of locally produced food or food grown within a short radius will ease carbon emission. Shortening food miles is often translated as reduction of carbon footprint by scaling down the hidden costs of energy use in food transportation (Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008) and thus help to combat global warming. While the localization of food system extends its rationalities far beyond environmental concerns, for the interest of this paper I will try to focus on the question of “how important is the notion ‘food miles’ in calculating the carbon footprint of the food system?” A wealth of literature on food system suggests, “it is not that the concept of food miles is wrong; it is just too simplistic” (Mckie, 2008, p.3). First, the emphasis on distance food traveled ignores the mode and scale of transportation; second, the exclusive aim of minimizing the distance food travels before reaching the consumer ignores the lifecycle analysis in food production phase (Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008); third, the concept of food miles solely emphasizes energy consumption in food transportation but ignores other factors, such as pesticides, labor, food storage, and capital.
The mode and scale of transport largely determine the quantity of energy used. However, the food miles concept does not address the financial and environmental costs of different transport modes and scales. According to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2005), “carbon emissions for sea transport are 15% of those for transport by road. Grams of carbon emitted per ton per kilometer (g/t/km) are 15 for sea and 98 for road, respectively. Air transport, however, emits 570 g/t/km” (as cited in Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008, p.5). Road transport also has other associated costs, such as congestion, infrastructure, accidents, and noise.
The concept of food miles also fails to fully address scale issues as well. For instance, 10 tons of grain traveling 1,000km in a 10t truck uses less energy than it does if the truck is replaced with 20 half-ton trucks.
Using distance traveled as the sole indicator of green house gas emission disregards emission of production outside of the transport sector. The green house gas emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase. According to a working paper by Wynen & Vanzetti (2008), food production “contributes 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO-2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represent only 11% of life cycle GHG emissions and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%” (p.3508). Food product lifecycle studies found that the most energy consumption takes place when moving the product from retailer stores to end-users. This is reasonably so because end-users often drive an empty car to the retailer stores, then drive home with few kilograms of groceries in a one-ton vehicle. The energy consumed per kilogram on the trip between “the retailer and the consumer’s home is found to be greater than the cumulative production and distribution costs to that point” (Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008, p.6).
Increased energy use in the local production and storage of goods may more than offset the energy saved in transport if, for example, GHGs are used to grow warm weather crops in cool climates. According to Van Hauwermeiren et al.’s study (2005), in which they compared emission levels from farm to retailer of tomatoes grown in Belgium for local consumption (both organic and conventional, grown outdoors; and conventional grown in greenhouse), imported from Spain by truck (conventional), and imported from Kenya by air (conventional and organic), CO2 emissions from tomatoes locally grown in greenhouses (1543g CO2/kg) are far more environmentally detrimental than emissions from tomatoes trucked from Spain (307g CO2/kg). Considering the total lifecycle of a product, local consumption does not necessarily result in lower energy use or lower carbon emissions. For instance, a study reviewed in Wynen and Vanzetti (2008), they conclude that lambs raised and consumedly locally in UK is four times more energy and emission intensive than lambs transported from New Zealand.
Over emphasis on the minimization of food traveled distance also ignores corresponding consequences. For instance, Gibbon and Bolwig (2007) gave examples of possible scenarios if the Soil Association in the UK banned airfreighted organic products from two African Countries (Kenya and Ghana) due to their extreme carbon footprint in food transportation. Among many possible outcomes, if supermarkets ban the sale of air-freighted organic produce, both exporters said they would abandon organic production and go back to selling only conventional produce (Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008). The environmental damage from such happening is far beyond the remediation the concept of food miles can possibly provide.
The concept of food miles emphasizes the use of one input (distance in its simplest form, and food transportation associated energy consumption and carbon emissions in the more sophisticated version), but ignores others, such as labor and capital. It also ignores negative externalities related to those inputs, such as the chemicals used in the production process. Weber & Matthew (2008) point out in their study “within food production, which totaled 6.8 t CO2 emission/households-yr, 3.0 t CO2 e (44%) were due to CO2 emissions, with 1.6t (23%) due to methane, 2.1 t (32%) due to nitrous oxide, and 0.1 t (1%) due to Hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs) and other industrial gases” (p.3511). Thus, a majority of food’s environmental impact is due to non-CO2 GHGs. Nitrous Oxide (NO2) emissions, mainly due to nitrogen fertilizer application, other soil management techniques, and manure management. Methane (CH4) emissions are mainly due to enteric fermentation in ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats) and manure management, and are thus concentrated in the red meat and dairy products (Weber & Matthew, 2008).
1. Dietary choice: according to Jane Liaw (2008), buying local is not as important as what you eat. Many authors suggest dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food related climate footprint than “buying local”. Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meet and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.
2. Lifecycle analysis: a better approach to be aware of and understand one’s food related carbon footprint is to undertake or learn from lifecycle analysis. Such analysis should also address the impact of other pollutants ignored by the food miles concept that need to be factored into decision-making. These include those generated in the production of agricultural inputs such as chemical fertilizers, and in the production process itself, such as methane.
3. Information sharing: instead of patronizing public into certain movement, information provision can balance asymmetric knowledge between food suppliers and consumers. It informs consumers on the climate and environmental impacts of their consumptive choices
4. Pricing food associated pollutants: let market function and raise people’s awareness of their food related carbon footprint by taxing relevant pollutants. Merely patronizing public into certain movement can only paralyze healthy markets that operate on comparative advantages and result in wasteful deadweight lost.
The concept of food miles, like any other social, environmental, political movements, is not an end in and of itself. It is a strategy to achieve whatever the goal/s may be. In this case, it is to reduce our food related carbon footprint and help to combat global warming. Overemphasis on the miles food traveled can only take focus away from better alternatives and thus not only misguide advocates, but also may lead to more environmental harm than good.
Thupgon (Spring 2010)
1. Weber, C., & Matthews, S. H. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology, 42(10), 3508-3513.
2. Pirog, R., & Benjamin, A. (2005). Calculating Food Miles for A Multiple Ingredient Food Product. Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, 3, 1-13.
3. Born, B., & Purcell, M. (2006). Avoiding the Local Trap. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26, 195-207.
4. Wynen, E., & Vanzetti, D. (2008). No Through Road: The Limitations of Food Miles. Asian Development Bank Institute, 1-12.
5. Merfield, C. N. (2006). Merfield.com. Retrieved Mar. 28, 2010, from Home Contact Personal Professional Research Misc. Web site: http://www.merfield.com/research/the-fallacy-of-food-miles.html.
6. Liaw, J. (2008). Mongabay.com. Retrieved Mar. 28, 2010, from Mongabay.com Website: http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0602-ucsc_liaw_food_miles.html
7. Mckie, R. (2008, March 23) How the myth of food miles hurts the planet. The Observer.
8. DeWeerdt, S. (2008). Worldwatch Institute: Vision for a Sustainable World. Retrieved Mar. 27, 2010, from Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC. Web site: http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6064.
While an increasing number of studies focus on desertification processes in northern China, pressing soil erosion and desertification in Tibetan regions have received little attention (Zeng Yongnian et al., 2003) . The few studies that do mention the desertification issue in Tibetan regions often simply jump to the same conclusion and blame the Tibetan traditional way of living—animal husbandry. “Overgrazing” has been the easy way out for most of studies. Overgrazing leads to land desertification? Maybe, but not in the simple way suggested. First, in traditional Tibetan animal husbandry, nomads practice rotational grazing and migrate multiple times a year. They allow pastures to lay fallow for months to recover and enable vegetation to reclaim the land before using them again. Additionally, Tibet has vast land but a sparse population. Often times, there are only two or three families for hundreds of miles. Finally, the Tibetan nomadic way of life has been in practice for generations, while land desertification seems to be a relatively recent environmental issue. Therefore, it seems inconclusive to blame “overgrazing” as the cause of soil erosion and land desertification in Tibetan regions. At the same time, decreases in primary productivity resulting from desertification directly threaten the animal husbandry-based economy in many parts of Tibetan regions.
Alternative explanations to overgrazing have been suggested by ecologists working in the area. According to Zheng Du et al. (2000) , overpopulation of pika and zokor is one of the main causes for degradation of grassland. Pikas (called “abra” in Tibetan language) are relatives of hares and rabbits, but are much smaller. In most of the pasture areas they live in astonishing numbers and are consequently considered major pests. Zheng Du et al. (2000) conclude that the main species of pika impacting grasslands on the Tibetan plateau include Ochotoma curzoniae, O. Dahuricaamage, and Myospalax baileyi. Pikas dug two or multi-ended holes all over the grassland. In the process of preparing their tunnels they separate plants’ main bodies from their roots and leave them to wither.
In 2000, there were “roughly 600 million ochotomas and 100 million myospalaxes in the Plateau areas” (Zheng Du et al., 2000, p215). Zhou Xingmin et al. (1995), point out that pika and zokor species on the plateau “annually consumed 15 billion kilograms of fresh grasses that were equal to the food quantities of 10 million sheep and destroyed 200 million ha of grassland areas” (as cited in Zheng Du et al., 2000). The damage of pika and zokor is closely related to, if not worse than, over grazing. Microtus oeconomus and O. cansa dominate local animal communities and not only impede the growth of local flora and compete against livestock for food, but also destroy plant cover and induce loss of water, top soil and stored carbon (Zheng Du et al., 2000).
Local Governments’ Failed Approach:
In many instances, relevant local governments provided plastic bags of rodenticide and mandated each household to send a representative to participate in pika hunting. This approach has not only failed to ease the pika crisis, but also triggered other concerns. When local Tibetans were mandated to poison pika, these results were forthcoming: 1) they hired other people to do the job on their behalf, 2) they ignored the governments’ call and were willing to accept the penalty (often pecuniary fines), 3) they physically participated but refused to kill, so they buried the bags filled with pesticide, and 4) they genuinely participated. As one can see, such governmental approaches often failed because the responsible officials ignored local religious beliefs. The approach failed because local participation was coerced as supposed to being voluntarily sought.
The use of poison to control the rodents has not only failed but also triggered other concerns. When bags of poison are barely covered with topsoil, it does not take much wind or rainwater to unearth the toxins. These harmful substances are left undisturbed in modern durable plastic bags until one day a curious passer by or starving animal swallows the whole thing. This results in not only losing its own life, but also economic loss (in case of livestock) or emotional injury (in case of household pets).
Why this is such a pressing issue that is in urgent need of a solution?
The occurrence and development of pika-induced land desertification reduces grassland primary productivity and threatens the plateau animal husbandry-based economy. It results in “an annual loss of organic matter of 20.413x109kg, total N 1.267x109kg, total P 1.149x109kg and total K 31.901 x 109kg” (Liu Yi-hua et al., 2005, p.291) . Liu Yi-hua et al. point out that land desertification in Tibetan regions has led to nitrogen and phosphorous loss that is 200 times greater than the application amount of chemical fertilizer in Tibet. Therefore, as Pika contributes significantly to grassland degradation and desertification, their over-population significantly threatens the agricultural and livestock productivity in Tibetan regions.
Pika further damages water conservancy, hydropower projects, roads and civil aviation in its processes and sand drifts (Liu Yi-hua et al., 2005). What is more, grassland degradation and topsoil loss lead to an increase in river sediment content, which can cause water shortages in dry seasons and flood inundation in wet seasons. Decrease in vegetation cover in Tibetan regions has led to climatic desiccation and warming (Liu Yi-hua et al., 2005). It has also weakened surface soil resistance to wind erosion. Consequently, strong wind could directly act on the sandy surface and thus exacerbate sand drift activity.
Throughout Tibetan regions, a large proportion of the population is still semi-illiterate at best and local livelihood and development directly rely on the production function of land resources. Grassland degradation and topsoil loss not only reduces primary productivity, but also negatively affects seasonal caterpillar fungus collection, which is one of the main sources of income for local Tibetans. The loss of vegetation due to an ever-increasing pika population also translates to a decreasing amount of land for caterpillar fungus production.
While other factors such as overgrazing may enhance ground surface disturbance and land desertification, it is important to realize that an increasing number of pika have been doing damage for far too long. More importantly, these factors are not acting in isolation, but instead are linked with each other, and feedback and intensify each other. Therefore, if there are no effective control measures to be adopted in the coming years, the associated loss will not only be environmental, and economic, but also cultural.
Why is grassland degradation/land desertification in Tibetan regions a cultural issue?
Tibetans have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years in a nomadic context as well as an agricultural context and this has entailed having a rich and complex knowledge of nature that is not well understood by westerners or Han Chinese. The Tibetan language also owes its richness and uniqueness to the plateau’s distinctive landscape and flora and fauna. Thus, pika induced ground disturbance and vegetation loss not only has environmental but also cultural imapcts. Restoration of the plateau’s environment therefore also indirectly contributes to Tibetan cultural and linguistic preservation.
What do I propose?
I propose a pilot project to reintroduce predatory species to the region and let nature perform its own magic. While an increasing pika population has done most of the damage, this does not downplay human’s involvement. Quite the opposite, it has been anthropogenic disturbance of the local food chain that has led to the explosion of pika population. For generations, Tibetans have hunted foxes for fur hats and killed wolves in protection of their herds. As the populations of these local predatory species have dwindled, the pika population has exploded beyond human control. So, I propose to test the reintroduction of a predatory species, foxes, and monitor their impact on the pika population.
How can we guarantee that history will not repeat itself in that local people won’t hunt down these species once again? My reasoning for precluding such occurrence is multifaceted: 1) differing from the past, firearms are outlawed throughout Tibet due to political concerns and thus the means of hunting foxes and wolves are greatly reduced. 2) religious awakening has recently led some Tibetan people to burn their otherwise precious animal pelts , suggesting they would be unlikely now to hunt for them. 3) outreach through TV and radio by non-governmental organizations as well as some local efforts have enabled indigenous people to become ever more environmentally conscious and to realize the importance of biodiversity conservation.
What are some potential challenges and corresponding solutions?
Reintroducing species to a region is by no means an easy task and there are many unanswered questions: which species to reintroduce? Where to reintroduce? Where to obtain these animals? What other ecosystem impacts can be expected from reintroduction? How to address associated local concerns? Where to get the funding needed? These questions do not excuse policy makers, local governments, indigenous residents, and even global citizens from trying to address this problem.
Given the complexity of the project, I propose to start a pilot project at a small scale. I propose to reintroduce a species of fox that can coexist with local livestock and bring no harm to the local population. This will not only ease local concerns over livestock loss, should we reintroduce wolves, but also preclude human injuries from predatory species.
Further studies are needed as which species in the fox family to reintroduce, and where to reintroduce it along with all the aforementioned concerns, but I believe this project is implementable, vital to the health of local as well as global environment, and fundamental to supporting the continued existence of Tibetan culture and language.
At this stage of the project proposal development, I do not have funding sources available, as I have not yet sought support. However, I have had past successes obtaining funding for well-conceived projects supporting traditional Tibetan lifestyles. I believe given my education and experience in civil engagement, plus Bard Center for Environmental Policy’s support, this project is not only implementable, but shall bring positive changes to the environment, culture and people of Tibet.
Thupgon (Spring 2010)
I often see folks dozing off on the train, sweating over some tedious physical motions, and feeding on cheap take out junk food. Then I wonder, what is the so called American dream. I often see people file into tiny offices at dawn, labor throughout the day and crawl out at dusk to headed back to what is labeled as “home” – some shared cheap apartments filled with hot summer air. Then I wonder, where is the so called American dream.I often hear people complaining about the amount of work they have due, the number of bills they have to cover and how expensive it is to do pretty much anything. Then I wonder, where is the so called American dream. An elderly lady struggles to drag her luggage up the stairways, I offer to help her, but she gets alarmed and with much force pulls the suitcase towards her with a concise, “I am fine”. In my head, I answered “no, you are not. You are struggling, so why don’t you let someone to give you a hand”, but in real life, I just simply walked away with a no so obvious shrug. This is American mentality – be alarmed about any interaction with strangers. Even small kids are like that, let alone an elderly. So, I wonder, how personal American dream must be. A black guy machinegun-ed a chain of curse words at a basket ball game and ball-hog-ged throughout the whole game. Still, raps some dirty complains about the loss, I reasoned to take it easy, but he pretend to be enraged on racial difference, what the Americans call “racist view”, I simply deny: “call whatever you want, even “colorist”, because I don’t know how to be racist and you can’t accuse me of being something that I am not even aware of”. Yea, that Americans’ chronic hyper-color-sis, do not have a cure yet. So, I wonder, how “colorless” the American dream must be.
we’ve lived it. So, it’s hard to live with such a phantom.
For once, for a while, we had it. We had what every human being longs for. We belonged to each other and we were more to each other than anyone can ever imagine. We breathed each other’s present. In the absence of one another, we felt the world being incomplete. Without each other, time seems to be forever and life seems to be stagnant. Having each other meant what we lived for. We were home to each other. Knowing we were there for each other, we feared nothing, we lived through difficult time and enjoyed from our successes. Having each other meant the world being at a smaller scale, at a manageable scale, and we are the protagonist in each other’s life and loneliness could never seep into our lives.
For once, for a while, we had it. We had what would make our lives happy and content. We planned a world where you attend the flower and I would make the bread. We had mentally designed a world where we were the king and the queen. Upon stepping into the room, we could do whatever we wanted: kick the shoes aside and simply being lazy; sip on a glass of red wine, while watching the sun goes down; hold each other while we drift off to sleep and share the dream together; paint the wall in whatever color we wanted it to be and should we decide to invite a new shade of color, both put on the uniforms and be the designer.
For once, for a while, we had it. We had what every couple marries for. We had each other’s genuine accompany. We walk through every avenue, dined at every restaurant, and listened to every song together, because if there was something nice, we wanted it for the other.
For once, for a while, we had it. Hand in hand, we strolled the evening campus together knowing that we meant more to each other than the usual college hookups. When fall chilled into winter, you used to stick your ice cold hands up under my shirt and to place it on my immediate flesh. For a second, my whole body shivered, but heartbeats remained the same, because it was where you belong. When spring blossomed into summer and the sun became more than we could bear, we sucked on the same ice cream cone, and fought for the remaining crust. No sense of disgust, because we were two bodies of the same soul, two petals of the same stem, two beats of the same heart.
Thupgon (summer, 2010)