Food Miles: Environmental Protection or Veiled Protectionism?

58 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2014

See all articles by Meredith Kolsky Lewis

Meredith Kolsky Lewis

University at Buffalo Law School; Victoria University of Wellington Law School

Andrew D. Mitchell

University of Melbourne - Law School

Date Written: September 18, 2014


This article examines the international trade, environmental, and development implications of campaigns to convince consumers to make food purchases based on food miles. Buying food from nearby sources has become a popular objective. One of the unmistakable messages of the “locavore” movement is that importing food – particularly food that comes from far away – causes environmental harm. The theory is that transporting food long distances results in the release of high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere and is thus a dangerous contributor to climate change. Proponents of this view therefore argue that “food miles” – the distance food travels from farm to plate – should be kept to a minimum.

The problem is that in reality, food miles are a poor proxy for environmental harm. Studies have demonstrated that differences in farming methods as well as natural factor endowments can mean that growing some products locally may in fact result in more GHG emissions than importing those same products. Notwithstanding this disconnect, legislators frequently propose policies based on food miles. Were a government to permit discrimination on the basis of food miles, or to otherwise endorse such a policy through its actions, it could be vulnerable to a World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute resolution challenge.

We first explain the term “food miles”, and how the concept has been used around the world. Second, it addresses the use of food miles as an indicator of environmental harm. We argue that food miles are in fact a poor proxy of such harm, and therefore should not be used. Part III considers whether food miles labeling currently in use as well as legislation that has been proposed could be successfully challenged through a WTO dispute settlement proceeding. Our analysis includes a detailed examination of the three 2012 Appellate Body decisions addressing the TBT Agreement, US – Clove Cigarettes; US – Country of Origin Labeling (US-COOL); and US-Tuna II (Mexico), and as such will be one of the first articles to engage in such an assessment. Fourth, we address the implications for developing countries of actions taken to reduce food miles. And finally, we examine and critique alternatives to food miles for those wishing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through farming and food consumption.

Keywords: World Trade Organization, WTO, GATT, TBT Agreement, food miles, life-cycle analysis, locavore movement, regulation, carbon footprint

JEL Classification: F01, F10, Q17, Q25

Suggested Citation

Lewis, Meredith Kolsky and Mitchell, Andrew D., Food Miles: Environmental Protection or Veiled Protectionism? (September 18, 2014). Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2014. Available at SSRN:

Meredith Kolsky Lewis (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

School of Law
719 O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States

Victoria University of Wellington Law School ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

Andrew D. Mitchell

University of Melbourne - Law School ( email )

University Square
185 Pelham Street, Carlton
Victoria, Victoria 3010
+61383441098 (Phone)
+61393472392 (Fax)


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