Ancient Trade Routes Lead to Sustainablity
When we evaluate how sustainable a food production practice is, we consider its carbon footprint. Looking at ancient trade routes can help us determine what can be delivered efficiently. If food was once delivered by boat or camel, it can be sustainably delivered today.
Ancient trade routes transported food that was dry, preserved, or could last for a long journey. The same logic that made sense then applies to long distance trade today.
Fresh foods should always be as local as possible, not only because this contributes to sustainability, but also because local foods are generally higher quality. Using preserved food from afar, however, can have a positive political effect, epescially if the products have a good carbon footprint. And there are many variables to consider when measuring how large a carbon foot print actually is.
The trade system of the Mayans fed huge cities. But they had no beasts of burden. Their carbon foot print came solely from feeding people (which made deforestation their primary ecological concern).
The carbon foot print of cheese shipped by freight from Michigan to California is much higher than that of fruit that comes to Los Angeles on a slow boat from China. This is true even though diesel engines of ships continue to have a high sulfur oxide output. Products that need refrigeration do increase hourly energy use, however, so in some cases air freight might be better than ground or sea for chilled items, due to shorter traveling time.
One exception to the camel rule is local products grown in hot houses. These may have a larger carbon foot print than those shipped by air freight .
Developing sustainable markets on an international scale can be just as important as developing sustainability in your home town. We all share a single, global ecosystem. Dust from the Gobi desert blows into North America. In the same way, bad local agricultural practices can echo across the globe. Decisions made in Denver can limit pesticides in China. By helping our local environment, we can have a global impact.
Local food is usually the most sustainable. But once food comes from beyond a 100-mile range, the the advantages become more cloudy. The question then becomes: how does the product get here, and how much energy does it take to produce it at its point of origin? Political issues must also be considered. If a region is developing economically, it is better to ensure that it begins by instituting sustainable practices, rather than trying to do catch up later. After pesticides and herbicides have been used, it takes years to convert land back to organic production.Tweet