During the 1990s, advocates for sustainable agriculture began using the term food miles to visualize a meal’s environmental impact. The meat and produce in our grocery stores has traveled hundreds, often thousands of miles for many reasons. We desire foods not indigenous to our area, or at a time when they are not in season. We expect to purchase foods at the cheapest possible price, incentivizing imports from locations where labor costs are low and environmental regulations lax. We eat food from around the world because sophisticated transportation networks and a “cold chain” of refrigerated storage allows us to. All of this travel, perhaps invisible to us, comes at an environmental cost.
The calculation of food miles has become more complex in the years since then—is it better to transport tomatoes via railroads from the South instead of growing them in fossil-fueled New York greenhouses?—and so environmentalists sometimes prefer the term “lifecycle analysis” for a deeper accounting. Still, there remains something very intuitive and powerful about eating within one’s own foodshed. A recent study by Andrew Zumkehr and J. Elliott Campbell calculated that 90% of Americans still could be fed entirely by food grown within a 100-mile radius (and even smaller than that by changing to a vegetarian diet). In other words, local food needn’t be an occasional luxury. This exhibit looks back upon a region whose “Genesee Wheat” traveled around the world thanks to the Erie Canal, both to explore the consequences of food miles but also the potential relocalization of its farming infrastructure.
Atheeqa Aijaz, Ken Cooper, Samantha Grabher, Elyssa Slawinski