Food Miles 2.0

Philip A. Loring
7 min readJun 22, 2022
Dole container ship and trucks at Port of San Diego. Picture by Karen Green.

A recent paper in the academic journal Nature Food has dusted off, and I believe improved upon, a well-known concept that had otherwise fallen out of favour with many climate advocates: the food mile. The new version does a decidedly better job at achieving it’s framers’ original intent: to more fully reveal the myriad invisible social and ecological costs of our food systems.

The food mile, which in common usage has come to mean the distance food travels to get from producers to consumers, gained much popularity in the 1990s among proponents of alternative food movements. It was highly compatible with the vernacular that was emerging in the movement, which also included such concepts as the foodshed and slow food.

Specifically, the concept of the food mile was attractive because it offered changseekers a relatively straightforward way to identify foods that met their values for food with fewer environmental and social costs. The theory behind it was that foods that had traveled father were more likely to be accompanied by hidden costs, whether environmental degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, poor wages and working conditions, and so on.

The food mile was an indicator, a proxy for information people couldn’t access.

Collectively, the food mile and adjacent concepts provided a framework for understanding the implications of not just where our food is produced but also how and by whom. Becoming a ‘locavore’ was an action people could take to support food systems in which practices were transparent and communication of values and other feedbacks between consumers and producers strong.

A cloth, hand painted sign reading “eat local” displayed over a table of food
Photo by Philip Loring

Make of these assumptions what you will; the relationships have proved to be as much aspirational as they are grounded in the realities of our present food systems. The food mile is a case in point.

With the rise of public concern over climate change, food miles began to take on a much narrower usage than the framers intended: that is, a proxy for only the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with transporting food from producer to consumer. With this narrowing, the concept became significantly more contested. Researchers began pointing out that food transport was rarely the most emissions-intensive aspect of our food system, accounting only, some estimates suggested, for roughly 2% of total global GHG emissions.

Other studies questioned the relative efficiencies of production systems, as did this study that showed that New Zealand beef and lamb purchased in the UK had lower overall emissions that alternatives produced locally, including transport. The same study did show that for other products the food mile concept held.

Food miles, in other words, were cast into doubt in favour of arguments against specific foods like animal protein. And thus, critics of the valorization of local argued that local and associated concepts were a trap: that no benefit or problem is inherent to the scale at which our food is produced.

Nevertheless, the values that drove the creation and rapid uptake of the food mile, the desire and right to know where one’s food comes from, remains.

Our food does not start on a farm

Enter the new foodmiles study by Li and colleagues, which more than triples the estimated contribution of foodmiles to global GHG emissions. That’s the headline anyway; the paper actually does something much more radical by removing the assumption that our foods start on a farm. If we want to fully account for where our foods come from, we need to start where the inputs — the seeds, the herbicides, the fertilizers, etc. — all come from.

Cue the Twitter argument.

Think of it this way. With the new approach, if you want to calculate the food miles of a steak, not only would you want to know how far the steak had traveled, you would also need to know how far the feed corn that the cow ate had travelled. AND you would need to know how far the fertilizers and pesticides and other chemicals used to grow that feed corn had traveled.

Because this is where so much of our food starts — in the factories that create fertilizers and chemical amendments — at least for those people eating from the increasingly complex industrial and transnational agricultural system.

This change how foodmiles are calculated arguably brings the concept back into line with its framers’ original intent; in the preface to the re-release of the report that started it all, The Food Miles Report, contributors note their frustration with how the concept had been reduced to a focus on GHGs.

Now, much of this information is terribly difficult to obtain, and that is precisely the point. Because the values behind the food mile concept hold that we should be able to obtain this information. And as a general rule, fewer food miles mean better information, because there will be fewer steps in the food chain, fewer actors and firms involved, and fewer opportunities for fraud.

Critics of Food Miles 2.0 argue that this betrays the original purpose of the concept — to be useful for shoppers making purchasing decisions — and is incompatable with the information to which they have access, such as stickers showing country of origin. I contend however that this more robust analysis helps us see that the locale of origin listed on our foods is in fact tremendously misleading.

It offers a whole-systems perspective on the climate impacts of our food rather than parceling out different parts into different sectors. This matters to how we think about interventions and also how we think about emerging technologies that might further obscure how, and from where, our food is produced.

Consider vertical farming, one example in a booming start-up industry that seeks to create wholly-controlled environments for growing food anywhere on the planet at any time of year. If vertical farmers set up shop in, say, the Greater Toronto Area, mainstream thinking would call that food “local” for me and other consumers in Guelph. But that would be a flagrant mischaracterization.

Image of inside a vertical farm growing greens.
Vertical farm. Photo by

Vertical farms are designed to be isolated from the land and ecosystem and climate that surround them. Not only that, vertical farms also stand to mask us from where the raw materials, the nutrients and chemicals and other inputs come from. Calling them local would be a marketing sleight of hand no different from the fraud involved in places such as Maryland, where “Chesepeake Bay blue crab cakes” often are called such just because they were made there or made in the local style, not because they contain blue crab from Chesepeake Bay.

A similar concern arises with aquaculture, given that it relies on commercially produced feed that is often sourced from fisheries in developing countries and at the expense of food security in those regions. If fish is farmed locally, but fed a feed derived from sardines, mackerel, and anchovies from around the world, we ought not call it “local”.

It possible that a vertical farming or aquaculture operation could find a niche within a local or regional food system such that it draws only on local resources and contributes to the broader circular economy and regenerative ecology of that place. In that case the food would pass muster for this new version of the food mile and meet any reasonable criteria for being local.

I personally have never understood why people push back against attempts to make more information about our food available to consumers. In some cases it seems to derive from good but frankly paternalistic intentions — that people are easy to confuse, that they won’t know what to do with the information. In others, though, I think it is because people disagree with consumers making their choice on a basis they disagree with — see e.g., past debates over labeling for high fructose corn syrup or genetically-modified ingredients.

And finally, I think there’s also a group out there whose preferred solutions for transforming our food systems rest on the belief that ultimately, the geography of our food shouldn’t matter. But that is as much a value statement as it is a scientific one. How we ought to eat, in other words, is not a question that science alone can, or should, seek to answer.

As a coda, it’s worth noting that GHGs are an important but imperfect metric for guiding food system reform, and should be considered in context with a variety of other features of our food systems. Advocates for food systems reform want to know more than how far their food traveled, they want to know what kind of food system they’re eating from so they can support the kind of food system they want. This new approach to understanding food miles and the origins of our food moves makes a positive contribution in that regard.



Philip A. Loring

Human ecologist and storyteller. Author of “Finding Our Niche.” Director of Human Dimensions for the Nature Conservancy. (Opinions are my own).