The idea of sustainability is about saving, conserving, preserving. It is about maximising enjoyment of human life while minimising irreversible consumption of natural resources. If there is as much giving back, as taking in, then it is sustainable. Like every idea, sustainability needs to be quantified to be understood and addressed scientifically. The safe-food movement takes a completely level-headed approach to the issue of sustainability. This movement is about unbiased spreading of awareness, helping common people see the concept clearly.

Industrialisation brought green revolution. Globalisation is bringing in adverse environmental effects. Most commodities are transported over large, often intercontinental, distances before reaching the consumer. In case of food, increased market distances also mean more processing. The route from farm to table is now longer, more winding via processing factories. Greenhouse gases from energy consumption in food processing and transportation can be more than those from producing food itself.

The concept of foodmiles was evloved in a scientific pursuit of more sustainable means of getting food on our plates. Foodmiles is exactly what it says. Food+Miles. The fewer miles between the farm and the table, the more sustainable it is. In reality, however, it may be more complicated to estimate that.

Our food is not entirely farm-produced, much less, on nearby farms. Think about all the packs, mostly of plastic, that we carry home. The rice and grains, the wheat or flour, the spices, oils, those ready-to-eat packs of noodles and pasta, chips, biscuits, pickles, tea-coffee, salt, sugar. A large part of our monthly grocery comes in as processed food. Very little of our food comes from nearby farms. In most cases, people have never asked, and even those that did, are not completely aware of where their source farm ever was. We buy our vegetables from the nearest vegetable vendor but we never asked them where they bought from. Our grain is bought at the grocer, but we rarely know how far it travelled to get there. Supermarkets offer shelves and shelves of food in coloured packaging and barcode stickers. Many of them do declare their origin, many do not. The apples could be from Himachal or Hamilton but never from Hatkanangale. Bananas could be from Daund or Bhusaval, but might also have come from Quito in Ecuador, half a world away.

Exotic foods have also made their way over to our kitchens. A copy of London’s Financial Times will often take longer to reach Pune’s British Library reading room than olives from somewhere in the Mediterranean Cyprus to reach Dorabjee’s shelves in Kondhwa. It sounds great to be able to buy a wide range of French cheeses and Danish yoghurts in a supermarket in suburban Mumbai or Bangalore, but such availability comes at a huge environmental cost.

As you start surfing the Internet for alternative, sustainable, safe and local foods, one thing pops to the foreground most prominently. Every perceivable environmental risk or challenge is loudly and vehemently hooted down by lobbies of globalisation. Sugar has a sugar-lobby. Dairy, poultry, meat all have their own mooing lobbies. It appears as though the Walmarts, Amazons and Carrefours have funded research to generate reports that lopsidedly protect the market interests of producer-groups. Granted, every fair producer is entitled to prosperity and will work to promote their output. But the bias in the tenor of their promotion is inescapable. For anyone seeking educated enlightenment, it can be tiring, mostly frustrating, to dig under piles of paid-research reports before reaching valid unbiased surveys and analyses.

Likewise it will be as you looked for the term “foodmiles”. The Wikipedia “foodmiles” page provides relatively straight information. Alongside, there are pages and pages of criticism of the concept of foodmiles. So what exactly do you make of it? There are a few observations that help here:

  1. Check which side the author/website tilts broadly. Often the most innocuous looking articles are sponsored by industry interests. One look at the about-us section can be tell-tale. Big profit pollutes big time. Objective view can come from citizen action groups not sold to any business.
  2. The criticism is often centred around how mere foodmiles is insufficient an index to measure the environmental impact. The claims will talk about how processing industry shares the carbon footprint blame with transportation. There will be talk about large steamships ferrying very large volumes of foodstuffs across oceans, so per kilo environmental damage is lower than moving food a few hundred miles in trucks making multiple trips over the farm-factory-market route. The obvious point here is actually simple – the less foodmiles, the better. If you get it local, you must.
  3. The world is not even. There are geographies better-endowed in soil fertility, irrigation and climate than some others. But human populations exist everywhere, and food must reach every mouth. Foodmile critics often point to the deprived regions in defense of the need to transport food globally. There is also talk about human desires and the necessity to satisfy them at all costs. In locations with abundant land, water and sunshine, every type of food can, and is grown locally – vegetables, dairy, poultry, foodgrains, spices, everything. So there is no intrinsic need to depend on food imports and going local is well within reach.

Next time you pay at your foodstore, ask yourself if you knew where your purchase came from. If you knew not, ask them. You could also ask us for local sources around Pune.

Author: Ashutosh Pradhan

2nd November, 2017

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