Zero miles and environmental sustainability, a topic for discussion

Zero miles and environmental sustainability, a topic for discussion

July 12, 2018

Zero miles and environmental sustainability, a topic for discussion

There are many positive elements in the 'zero miles' philosophy, but its sustainability (from an economic and also nutritional perspective) is under discussion. Being true 'locavores' is very difficult and maybe not even necessary.

Locavorism: a complex-sounding word behind which is the 'zero miles' philosophy, encouraging the sale and consumption of local products, and thus avoiding the need to cover great distances to reach the tables. Locavorism is a neologism created in 2005 by Jessica Prentice, chef and author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection. As an analogy with the words carnivores and herbivores, locavores only eat local food, reducing the environmental impact of food production, and, according to the strongest supporters, securing fresh, seasonal products.


Zero miles is supposed to be a food distribution system that is more sustainable than others. Is it really so? Not everyone agrees. For example, researchers Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, who wroteThe locavore's dilemma - In praise of 10.000-mile diet in 2012, distanced themselves from the theory. They are especially skeptical of the very concept of zero miles as a measurement unit: it would make sense if there were no differences across regions, but since lands may be more or less fertile, they receive more or less sunshine or rain, obviously some products need to be farmed in hot countries and then shipped to the north, where they would require fertilizers, pesticides, heat and a lot more water to grow locally. 

Tim Lang, Food Policy professor at UCL, the prestigious London university, disagrees. He is the one who first mentioned food miles during a radio program on the UK's Radio 4. Food transport is often synonym with huge CO2 emissions, and a significant increase in greenhouse effect. Lang coined the expression to highlight the complex and expanding phenomenon defining the link between food, environmental sustainability and global warming. That was November 1992.

Since then, the word has been used in the most disparate contexts: sustainable agriculture, marketing, journalism, linguistics. It is now listed as a new expression in the Oxford English Dictionary. 

Environmental impact

Fully understanding the concept of zero miles, in all its facets, in order to take informed decisions, is complex because several different factors are involved. Moving food from field to fork is now an inescapable element of the environmental impact evaluation, but experts believe that a zero mile market is not sustainable today. Aside from the inevitable limits to the range of available products (with potential effects on the overall nutritional quality, as medical historians know too well when they analyze diseases linked to past production limitations), if we produced and sold only locally, the cost of food would soar so much that it would become prohibitive for part of the population. Fresh products such as fruit and vegetables would become a luxury, with a negative impact on public health. 


The market, therefore, does not allow for everyone to be exclusively locavore. Considering the ecological impact of food production and transportation, however, it is still important to raise awareness of the problems that led to the idea of zero-mile supply chains: reducing pollution, enhancing local crops and know-how and, especially, reducing food waste. An example? Buying seasonal food and, whenever possible, preferring local produce means avoiding the physiological loss that comes with truck, ship or air journeys.

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