Saturday, March 25, 2006

Thinking Globally and Living Locally: Food Miles and You

This piece was originally published in WRENzine

Although the United States did not sign the Kyoto protocols, people in many other countries that did are getting educated about the subject of food miles, and one way that North Country farmers, food processors and other microenterpreneurs can promote their products is by educating the consumer about the subject.

“Food miles” is a term that is used to describe how many miles a particular item travels in its journey from the producer’s farm to the dinner plate. It stands to reason that the idea applies as well to items as diverse as fabrics, furniture, and paper-all products of the North Country and its talented work force.

For example, if we take a truckload of apples, notepads, or sides of beef that leaves a collection point in Spokane or Omaha and travels to a terminal in Portland, Maine, we ought to be able to figure out how much CO2 and other pollutants the truck contributes to the atmosphere and by extension how much each apple or steak or pencil on board contributes. We can also determine how local products stack up by comparison. We can also form some disturbing conclusions about organic vs. local foods that are increasingly important.

The connection with the Kyoto protocols and other issues closer to home, of course, is the subject of carbon dioxide (CO2) loading-although the subject of artificially low diesel fuel prices and highway maintenance dollars that subsidize the transport of food over long distances represent important associated problems that farmers and local enterpreneurs can use to promote their products.

Research on this subject was conducted by Rich Pirog and others for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (, and Rich estimates that the average distance an article of food travels is about 1,500 miles. His study estimated that a bag of locally grown spinach traveled 36 miles, but a bag of supermarket spinach traveled 1,815 miles.
A conversation we had recently shows that Chilean table grapes that are moved by water transport to Philadelphia contribute much less environmental load than California table grapes that move 1/3 of the distance by motor truck. In order of efficiency, water transport ranks first, followed by rail transport, motor truck, and air transport which is dead last.

Just as a matter of interest I took a look in my pantry and I found a bag of flour that came from Minneapolis (275 mi.), a jar of pickles that came from Milwaukee (about the same), a bag of those California table grapes (1,800 miles) and some Missouri apples (100 miles). If I decide to toss a few burgers on the grill, the meat will come from Nebraska (about 150 miles). Take a look at your fridge and see how it stacks up, or better yet, have a conversation with your local grocer about this subject. Let her know you support local farmers and enterpreneurs.

Now is a good time to start thinking about how far your food and supplies travel to get to the point of use. Taking this subject a little further, it stands to reason that in some cases the healthy choice on an individual level is not be the sustainable or responsible choice on a regional or national level. The bag of organic lettuce that is hyperwashed and packed in plastic which travels from Colorado to Portland, Maine via refrigerated motor truck may be more damaging to the environment than a bag of locally grown lettuce that is not certified organic but travels from a local farmer to your grocery and then to your table.


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