In the early 2000s, a report from the Leopold Institute popularized the phrase “food miles.” The research detailed in that report showed that locally produced and distributed food uses less fossil fuel than industrially produced and distributed food because it has fewer food miles in it. Since the publication of that and subsequent reports this idea has become dogma and the phrase “food miles” has become a part of everyday language. The problem with the Leopold paper is that the comparison they did was for fully loaded local, regional, and national trucks. In reality, local, especially, trucks are not fully loaded, they are often mostly empty.

Awhile back I got some flack for a post and a follow-up post in which I argued against this food  miles dogma and claimed that local farm and food systems, as they really exist today, do not use less fossil fuel than the industrial one. I still believe the argument I made in those two posts. I also still believe that it is important to find ways to decrease, on a per pound basis, which was the basis of my comparison, the fossil fuel consumption of local farm and food systems, especially in distribution. I would like to propose that we abandon the concept of food miles in favor of the more revealing and accurate “pound-gallons,” a horribly ugly phrase, I admit. What matters in terms of fossil fuel consumption is not how many miles the food has traveled, but how many gallons of fuel are in each pound of food. (Pound-gallons can also be used to compare fossil fuel consumption between industrial and local food production as well [eg, tractor use]) The food miles framework is very misleading. The reality is that there are substantially fewer pound-gallons in 40,000 pounds of produce trucked 1500 miles (0.0075) than in 200 pounds of produce trucked 50 miles (0.021). At 550 pounds of produced trucked 50 miles, the local pound-gallons and the industrial pound-gallons would be equivalent. (See the link to the first post above to see the math)

Once we adopt pound-gallons and abandon food miles, we see that we have a long way to go before local farm and food systems are using less fossil fuel, especially in distribution, than the industrial system. We need to get substantially more produce on each truck and/or transport that produce substantially fewer miles.

How do we do this? Following are a few suggestions, but of course, this list barely scratches the surface.

1) Instead of imposing food miles limits at farmers markets we should start imposing pound-gallon limits. A farmer may only be twenty-five miles away (fifty miles for the calculation), but if she is only selling 200 pounds of produce, we would do better going to the grocery store and buying poison industrial crap, based solely on fossil fuel consumption.

2) Conveniently located farmers should start “truck pooling,” that is, sharing a market truck instead of driving five different half empty trucks to the same market. (Farmers being farmers, and the needs of a farm being the needs of a farm, this is never going to happen)

3) We should promote CSAs, but also impose pound-gallon limits on distribution points, and maybe even on member mileage for on-farm pick-up (very few people, especially urban and suburban people, currently drive more than, say, fifteen miles to the grocery store, so they shouldn’t be driving thirty miles to the farm). The number of shares dropped off at each distribution point would have to be enough to keep pound-gallons below the industrial average — remember, for the purposes of this post, the only consideration is fossil fuel consumption.

4) We should switch to a market system based on purveyors rather than farmers, which is the type of market being established in New York City at the New Amsterdam Market. Purveyors can easily truck pool (they would just hire a trucker) and they can themselves live much closer to the markets than can farmers (even if farmers were to truck pool, they would still need to get themselves to the market, mileage that needs to be included in the calculation). Such a system is especially important for getting local-regional farm produce into major metropolitan areas. (This is very much an ideological capitulation for me. When I got into this, I wanted every sale of every pound of farm produce to be face-to-face between the farmer and the customer)

5) Use third party certification systems to ensure that the farmers and distributors in a system of wholesale (totally faceless) local-regional production and distribution are actually doing what they say they are. While the interactions themselves would be faceless (neither the customer, nor the retailer would have met, necessarily, the farmer), the products could be labeled with the farm name, including contact information, and web addresses could be listed so that the customer could go to the farm website or get in touch directly with the farmer if s/he desired. The problem with this approach is the trustworthiness of the third party certifiers. Seemingly third-party certifiers are sometimes nothing more than fronts for Big Ag. (This is another, even bigger, ideological capitulation for me. I wanted to see the wholesale system done away with completely)

If we really care whether local-regional farm and food systems use less fossil fuel than the industrial system, then we need to stop using misleading concepts like food miles and take the idea seriously. The pound-gallon concept takes this idea seriously and it produces real, “actionable” data. The trick now is to imagine and implement ways to bring our local-regional pound-gallons below that of the industrial system.