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Counting Our Food Miles

Counting Our Food Miles
by Wendy Priesnitz

For many of us, our food is better traveled than we are. According to the WorldWatch Institute, in the United States, food typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to plate, as much as 25 percent farther than in 1980. For some people, this modern long-distance food system offers unparalleled choice. But it often runs roughshod over local cuisines, varieties and agriculture, while consuming staggering amounts of fuel, generating greenhouse gases, eroding the pleasures of face-to-face interactions around food and compromising food security. And recent heightened concerns over global warming, compounded by food poisoning scandals linked to contaminated pet, poultry, and pig food ingredients from China, have many of us thinking about where our food comes from…that is, counting our “food miles” (or kilometers.)

In our quest for permanent dietary summertime, in mid-winter we eat strawberries that have been flown in from warmer climates and make our own nasty little contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions flood that is irrevocably harming our ecosystem.

Even food grown locally can rack up a lot of food miles. The carrots you buy at the grocery store could have been transported from the local farm to be packaged at a distant central depot and then sent back to be sold near where they were produced in the first place. Also, because of the way the food processing industry works, ingredients travel around the country – and beyond – from factory to factory, before they make their way to your local store. Some of this has to do with comparative labor costs.

For example, some British fish is sent to China (where labor costs are much lower) for processing, then sent back to the U.K. to be sold. For the same corporate reasons, it is often impossible to buy in-season locally grown garlic in a grocery store because the shelves are full of garlic that has been grown more cheaply in China or elsewhere. Unfortunately, this transportation factor may even offset the positive environmental effects of organic farming, according to a 2005 study by the journal Food Policy.    

The food miles equation is a complicated one, depending on many factors. Distance isn’t always the only factor, since a long journey by boat, for example, has less environmental impact than a shorter one by road or air. Also to be considered is the negative environmental impact created by many trips by personal cars to supermarkets or farmers’ stalls, compared to that of a few truck loads to neighborhood stores that can be easily accessed by walking or biking. Even the amount of traffic – and therefore highly polluting starts and stops – one encounters on the drive to the supermarket or countryside must be considered. 

Beyond that, transportation is only one component of the total environmental impact of food production and consumption. In fact, any environmental assessment of food that consumers buy needs to take into account how the food has been produced and what energy is used in its production. According to a report by the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it is, for example, likely to be more environmentally friendly for tomatoes to be grown in Spain and transported to the U.K. than for the same tomatoes to be grown in greenhouses in the U.K. requiring electricity to light and heat them.

Quantifying all of this is difficult. Researchers at the Iowa State University-based Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture attempted to use a complicated formula to compare the impact of selling locally grown produce versus conventionally handled – and therefore well-traveled – produce. In a report entitled Checking the Food Odometer, they found that conventional produce items traveled from eight to 92 times farther than the local produce to reach their points of sale, and that the average food mile – or “weighted average source distance” (WASD) – for locally grown produce to reach markets was 56 miles,  while the conventional distance was 1,494 miles, nearly 27 times further.

In 2005, using the same WASD methodology, Canadian researchers Stephen Bentley and Ravenna Barker compared food purchased at a local farmers market and a nearby supermarket and reported the results in Fighting Global Warming at the Farmer’s Market. They compared transport distances, energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from seven locally produced items and equivalent imported items. They found, for example, that carrots from California traveled 59 times further than carrots sourced from a nearby farm. While a half kilogram of local lamb generated seven grams of carbon dioxide through transportation, the same quantity of fresh New Zealand lamb yielded over eight kilograms.

One way to help consumers through this dilemma of calculating the effect of their food purchases is to have mandatory country of origin labels, known as COOL. In the U.S., COOL was incorporated into the 2002 Farm Bill as a way of protecting American consumers from mad cow disease and other threats from imported food. It was never implemented, at least partly due to lobbying by corporate agribusiness, the large supermarket chains and trading partners like Canada, Mexico, and Australia.

Sweden seems to be on a more useful track with its creation of a label for “climate- friendly” foods. Beginning next year, Swedes will be able to choose food according to the impact its production and transportation methods have on the climate. “It’s unlikely that a product that has been transported by plane would be called climate-friendly, for example,” says Jessica Elgenstierna, spokeswoman for the Swedish food consumer organization KRAV, which is behind the scheme.

The U.K. has also started down the path of putting “carbon labels” on products. The supermarket chain Tesco has said it will label every product in its stores. The Carbon Trust, a government agency, has produced a prototype label and began by using it on shampoo, fruit juice, and potato chips. The U.K.’s largest organic certification agency, the Soil Association, says it is considering refusing to certify produce that has been imported by air; other options under consideration are a selective ban, labeling, and carbon offsetting.

Sustainable/local farm product certification is growing in popularity around the world. The Canadian organization Local Flavour Plus has developed standards by which it can certify farmers and processors and then link them with local purchasers. To be certified, farmers and processors much employ sustainable production systems that reduce or eliminate synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; avoid the use of hormones, antibiotics, and genetic engineering; and conserve soil and water. They must also provide safe and fair working conditions for on-farm labor, provide healthy and humane care for livestock, protect and enhance wildlife habitat and biodiversity on working farm landscapes and reduce food-related energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions through energy conservation, recycling, minimal packaging and local sales.

As the Local Flavour Plus standards suggest, there are more benefits to eating locally than climate friendliness Farmers who are selling to a local market are more likely to diversify production, making it easier to farm sustainably. Preserving local farm economies is another motivation. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association estimates that by encouraging Maine residents to spend $10 per week on local food, $100,000,000 will be invested back into farmers’ pockets and the Maine economy each growing season.

Presuming that one manages to identify both locally produced foods and sources for purchasing them, for those of us living in cold climates, their exclusive consumption can make it a challenge to eat a balanced diet. But thousands of people are taking up that challenge, inspired, in many cases, by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, a Vancouver, British Columbia couple who decided in 2005 that for one year, they would buy or gather their food and drink from within 100 miles of their apartment. Their adventure caught the fancy of the media around the world and led to the launch of a website, a book and dozens of other 100-Mile Diet projects, eat local challenges, and organizations promoting local food systems.

Yes, local food might be more expensive than the alternative, due to a variety of government subsidies like price supports, tax breaks, and trucking/road infrastructure subsidies. But its price is a more accurate representation of its cost of production…and worth every penny in increased personal, community, and environmental health.

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. She has also authored 13 books.


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