Re-Thinking Food Miles

(Photo/Burpee Gardens).

By Ben Gerig

Food miles—the distance groceries travel from farm to plate—may not be as critical to consumers’ overall carbon footprints as previously thought.

In the last few years “local eating” movements have sprouted nationwide, exhorting consumers to eat food grown within a 100-mile radius of their homes. However, Sharon Collinge, an Environmental Studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, points out that it’s the number of miles consumers drive to grocery stores that causes the most harm to the environment, not necessarily the distance food travels from where it originates.

However, the issue goes much deeper than simply food miles. As Collinge indicates, there are numerous factors that contribute to efficiency, or lack of it, in our food systems. People need to take better ownership of understanding where their food actually comes from and how it is produced, Collinge said.

“The main argument that’s made for eating locally is food miles,” Collinge said during a recent presentation at the CU-Boulder campus. “Oftentimes food travelling from oversees is packaged, shipped and distributed with more efficiency than a local grower can muster,” she said. The process of getting blueberries from farms in Chile to markets in the U.S. is often very efficient, even though they are traveling a greater distance, Collinge observed.

Shoppers concerned about the environment should not place ‘buying local’ at the top of their list of priorities when purchasing food, according to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology. The fuel burned in transporting food items from farm to marketplace creates just a small percentage of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food, the study indicates. Rather, it is the production phase of food that accounts for the major portion of greenhouse gas emissions –- some 83 percent of the average U.S. household’s food-related carbon footprint, according to the study.

The packaging and transportation of food is a relatively minor contribution, energy-wise, to overall impacts on the environment, according to Collinge.

“Viewed as a whole, we must take all factors into account such as water and pesticide use, and food storage, when adjudicating the carbon footprints of the food we consume,” she said.

Regarding the issue of food miles, eating locally apparently has a hidden layer that most consumers ignore in favor of the emerging adage: eating local equals lower carbon footprints equals increased health for consumers. According to Collinge, this is not necessarily so.

While it’s trendy for shoppers to frequent farmers’ markets (the number of which grew, nationally, by 17 percent from 6,132 in 2010 to 7,175 in 2011), purchase organic items at Whole Foods, and consume foods only when they’re in season, it’s important to look at the industrial food system from all sides, she said.

Tracing food back to a particular location and grower adds a great deal to the conversation about the ethics and environmental sustainability of particular food choices.

According to Joe Miller of Miller Family Farms in Platteville, Colorado, which produces a variety of vegetables, people don’t understand that it’s actually more efficient to farm in Colorado without being certified organic.

“I chose not to chase certified organic status at Miller Farms because it just isn’t viable when you need to produce a large yield of crops in high desert soil conditions,” he said in an interview. Some seeds need to be genetically modified, he added.

Miller Farms grows some genetically modified crops, which allows them to spray fewer pesticides and conserve the amount of water needed for crops to flourish locally, he explained.

Genetically modified crops were recently the subject of intense debate in Boulder, with some residents opposing the county’s decision to allow farmers to grow some GM crops on open space land, mainly due to health and environmental concerns and fear that GM crops could cross-pollinate with non-GM crops.

And while GM proponents highlight the opportunity GM crops offer for reduced pesticide use, so-called “superweeds” have emerged that are resistant to glyphosate, the herbicide used on genetically modified corn, soy, and cotton, and sold as Roundup by agrochemical giant Monsanto. This has resulted in some farmers “being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing,” according to the New York Times.

Additionally, in an extensive review of GM crop performance, released in 2009, The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that GM crops, such as corn and soybeans, have largely failed to increase crop yields as the biotechnology industry claimed they would.

Collinge, however, is not opposed to GM crops and advocates for combining organic farming methods with some genetic seed modification to decrease environmental impacts from pesticides while attempting to find innocuous ways to increase food production in order to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writes, “Eating puts us in touch with all that we share with the other animals, and all that sets us apart. It defines us. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction.”

“So take a look in your refrigerator this evening and pick out a single item,” Collinge said. “See if you can trace where the item comes from, how it was grown and what fuel costs were involved in its transit.  Then take a look at how far you’re driving to get it and that’s what we’re finding matters the most to sustainability.”

One comment

  • I think food miles are important, but the more important issue is quality: I think local food can be delivered fresh and fresh food is more nutritious. If it flew from Chile, it’s probably pretty old! And if you know your local farm, you can know the environmental, food-safety, and labor conditions used to grow it. Then you can know it’s not irradiated, sprayed with carcinogens and neurotoxins, washed with contaminated water, or grown with slave-labor. And that tastes delicious.

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