Food miles refers to the miles food travels in order to get from places of production to places of consumption. Beginning thousands of years ago with spice trades and colonial exploitation of the Caribbean, Africa, the America's, and many other places, we began the concept of a globalized food market.
While the context focuses primarily on the embodied energy, often looking solely at the amount of miles in a fossil fuel use context, it is also relevant to understand that there are many other factors that play into why and how food miles have become such an important issue. Furthermore, life cycle analysis has been proposed as a deeper look into the environmental, economic, and social issues surrounding food transport.
However, food miles in and of themselves are very important and are an easily digestible concept. That is, the further your food must travel (i.e. apples from New Zealand to Wisconsin travels ≈ 8,400 miles) the more energy will be used to transport it.
(CC Image (right) of cargo ship by Ines Hegedus-Garcia (Flickr: Cargo Ship Leaving Miami Beach) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons))
Some will point out that shipping via cargo ships is by far the best in terms of energy used, but once on land, large trucks and semis are used to ship foods around the country. These modes of transportation are highly unsustainable and the need for alternative means of transportation will become increasing prevalent going forward.
Alternatives and solutions that are being brought from a sustainability viewpoint challenge the current systems quite dramatically by analyzing the available data, looking at long-term trends, and trying to find solutions that not only insure our way of life, but dramatically increase the standard of living for all people while protecting people, as well as the planet.
Some of the most prevalent alternative ideas and methods that help reduce or eliminate foods miles include: localism, cold-climate greenhouse growing, permaculture, community gardening/farming, urban farming,aquaculture, farmers markets, organics, biodynamics, agroecological restoration, edible landscaping, and much more.
(CC Image (left) by Rennett Stowe from USA (Burgundy Semi Truck Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons))
None of the proposed idea's to lowering food miles is likely to come to fruition on its own, in a way that replaces the new all at once. More likely and resilient, are systems that rely on inherent biodiversity that seeks to work within the natural rhythms and seasons, while learning exploiting the most appropriate systems and technology available that meets the standards described above.
One thing is clear, we need to have more people functioning as primary producers. We need more farmers stewarding the land for the local communities and helping to keep food, money, and a sense of place within the community in order to succeed. Without seriously challenging food miles, as well as looking into perverse subsidies, the current economic paradigm, neoliberalism, ecosystem services, externalities, discount rates, and collapse of societies, we are likely to find ourselves woefully unprepared for a number of challenges in the future.
With roughly 3-7 days worth of food available at any given time in supermarkets, any disruption in the current system could lead to massive food shortages, and a complete destabilization of connected systems. As with all subjects in sustainability, we must seek to preempt and mitigate foreseeable issues in order to build a world that is equitable and just for all, while preserving the rights of future generations as well as the planet itself.
(CC Image By idleformat (Flickr: Food miles) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)) (Click to enlarge)