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
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.
The 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.
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
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
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
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.