There’s been a lot of talk about local food lately. It’s become quite the trend. There is a new category of eaters who call themselves “locavores.” They only eat food produced close to home. It’s so good for the environment! Right?
Imagine, if you will, the container of mango-flavored yogurt in your fridge: The milk used to make the yogurt came from dairy farms in California and Wisconsin. The mangos were grown in India. Of course, there’s a little corn starch in the yogurt (what’s food without corn?), which came from corn grown in Iowa. Each of these products has to travel to the processing plant where they are combined and then packaged into nice little plastic cups. Then the little cups make the trip to one food depot or another. Then, from the depot they journey to your grocery store. Maybe you live in Texas. That’s a lot of miles.
Your food is not being pedaled to the supermarket on bicycles — it’s being shipped — shipped in big trucks, airplanes and boats running on fossil fuels. The basic premise of eating only local foods is to reduce food miles. Food miles refers to the amount of distance a certain food product has traveled before it reaches your plate. The idea is that by eating foods produced locally, one is reducing the amount of distance that food has to travel, thereby reducing fossil fuel emissions and saving the environment.
Let’s step back and look at the big picture. There’s a lot of argument about the impact of the food system, but it is likely responsible for somewhere around 22 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 30 percent of global energy use. That makes food second only to transportation in terms of fossil fuel consumption and emissions.
The reason that the food industry’s impact is so difficult to quantify is because agriculture isn’t the only source of emissions. Food pokes its sticky fingers into almost every other sector of energy use and emissions — transportation, manufacturing, waste disposal, land use, etc. Getting that one little cup of yogurt into your fridge took used a lot of energy in a lot of different ways.
Transportation accounts for only about 11 percent of the food system’s total emissions. Food processing and livestock production contribute the bulk of emissions and other environmental costs. Perhaps focusing environmental eating efforts solely on reducing food miles doesn’t make the most sense.
Just because that T-bone is local doesn’t mean that it was produced in a sustainable or ethical way. In some cases, it might even be better to buy food that was shipped from far away. Imagine trying to grow a successful crop of tomatoes in Alaska. The fossil fuels required to grow them would certainly be more than the amount needed to ship them from California. Surely it is better to purchase certain foods locally, but local food is not synonymous with sustainable food.
Food trade is arguably vital to global markets and nutrition, and transportation is vital to food trade. Where would the Colombian coffee farmer be without food export? Where would you be without your morning cup of joe?
Yet, just because transportation accounts for a relatively small portion of food system emissions doesn’t mean we should forget about it. Tossing your soda can in the recycling bin instead of the landfill won’t save the planet, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. We should always be looking for ways to reduce emissions.
There’s a lot of room for improvement. Diesel trucks account for 60 percent of food transportation emissions. These trucks are often refrigerated to preserve the freshness of perishable foods (like your mango yogurt), which requires them to guzzle even more fossil fuel. These trucks also often cover unnecessary miles. Sometimes the food travels farther to get to the food depot for redistribution than the distance from the source of the food to the grocery store.
Maybe instead of eschewing food miles all together, we should focus on making them cleaner and more efficient while buying local food when it is prudent to do so. Think alternative fuel sources, better fuel efficiency, greener vehicles, larger cargo sizes and improved truck routes. Think less processed foods and more practical local produce.
What do you think?