This weekend The Observer gave over their magazine cover to Jay Rayner’s claim that ‘everything you believe about locally sourced food is wrong’ (you can read it here). The piece deserves little attention, but given it has already got such a high profile it’s worth responding (briefly) to correct some of the nonsense it is based on.
If I was to write a restaurant review I’m sure I’d make a fool of myself, and it certainly seems as if Jay is out of his depth in the arena of food sustainability, but he has a book to promote and a willing media outlet.
He starts by an anecdote about one of these endless tv chef competitions he was a judge on, and how the contestant Rick Moonen was criticised by Rayner for shipping venison from New Zealand to Los Angeles for the competition. He goes on to explain how shipping lamb, apples and dairy from New Zealand to Britain has a lower carbon foodprint than the equivalent in Britain citing a much trumpeted (cherished even) report from 2006.
Setting aside for a moment the whole ghastly display of weird bourgeois obsessiveness that the tv-food-chef-restaurant-foody industry represents, the argument doesn’t stack up, despite the oceans of publicity it has created. Here’s why:
It’s important to understand food miles not just as the air-freighted asparagus or the food traded unnecessarily. All forms of transport are involved and the idea put forward that shipping is some kind of benign element of the chain doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny. Transportation by shipping produces 1 billion metric tonnes of C02 emissions & uses 11 billion gallons of fuel per year internationally. In fact the amount of sulphur oxide pollution that comes from 15 largest ships equals the combined amount from all the cars in the world.
The reality is that transporting goods about the world that we have no need to creates an unnecessary pollution.
Food Miles as a Single Indicator
Rayner makes great play of this idea that: “the end of food miles as a single indicator makes everything very complicated”.
Except of course that no-one ever really took ‘food miles as a single indicator’ instead using ideas and measurements such as: soil quality, embedded water, environmental justice, refrigeration chain, nutrient-content, biodiversity-impact and other essential factors into account.
But a basic question: ‘Could I get this produce from my own region at this time of year?‘ remains an essential (and simple) question to ask.
Food re-localisation is still an absolutely essential part of the food sustainability debate. It’s key.
But it’s key not just because food miles do create massive unnecessary emissions but because there are a host of other reasons why it’s good to buy local. Freshness is one. Transparency is another*. Supporting local farmers and helping create (financially) sustainable local economies is another one.
That these things are so easily understood and command such widespread public support doesn’t mean they are simplistic, it just means that people are recovering their common sense from decades of mad globalisation.
Yield as a Metric
Jay Rayner makes a big effort to focus on figures for yield (he ends up getting a right old muddle about potatoes and apples). But let’s look at yield – if you want to talk about people using a ‘single metric’ – this is is the one that entire industries are based on.
Yield as a sole metric has disastrous consequences. It leads to an exhaustive aspiration to get more and more and more out of the same amount of land, the same amount of soil.
In order to understand yield you need to examine inputs. In Rayner’s world there is a something for nothing fantasy where food comes from the land of bounty as if by magic.
This is industry fightback and a determined effort to argue the case for ‘business as usual’, and to be honest, if my job was to eat out, who’d want to change a thing? The world must seem a pretty wonderful place decked in white linen and typing out articles between amuse-bouche.
But the real key to understanding Jay Rayner’s New Zealand research is in para 2: “The food miles concept has the potential to threaten New Zealand exports” – as it does to all. Reconceptualising trade and export based on the criteria of food sovereignty and based on climate realities means a massive social change. No doubt, but that’s the challenge the 350 generation face. That’s the challenge we face as a species, not just as a generation.
The ‘threat to ‘exports’ is nothing next to the threat of business as usual and the mass inertia represented by this piece.
As one person commented after Jay’s article: “How about another paradigm Jay? Instead of comparing which is the lesser of two carbon heavy systems, namely importing food around the world vs modern chemical based monoculture, how about promoting natural systems which leave a far smaller footprint?”
This makes sense.
There’s a global movement to change the way we eat – it’s part of the wider environmental movement for pressing essential change. We’re proud to be part of that movement but I don’t think I’ll be taking my lessons from someone who’s ‘job’ is to eat in restaurants.
Mike Small is the author of Scotland’s Local Food Revolution (Scotland’s Local Food Revolution by Mike Small (Paperback) (ISBN: 9781908931269)
* You might think that transparency might be a ‘good idea’ given the recent horse meat fiasco.