As you know we believe in the importance of buying locally grown, organic foods. There are many reasons for doing this, including freshness, taste, nutritional value, support of the local economy and building relationships with the farmers who grow our food. Another equally important reason to buy locally produced food is the carbon footprint of imported and heavily packaged and processed food. So when buying food, ask yourself is your food a world traveler?
Would you believe that produce from a major grocery store chain travels a whopping 1,500 miles on average from the farm to your plate? That even includes organic foods. Transporting food so far is a problem for several reasons. Supermarket monocultures mean that you’ll see only varieties that travel well, resist bruising, and have a longer shelf life. They’re less nutritious (and taste like cardboard) by the time you eat them.
Needlessly transporting produce around the globe for processing and packaging wastes natural resources and harms the environment. Long distance, large scale transportation of food consumes huge amounts of fossil fuel. We currently use almost 10 kcal (kilocalories) of fossil fuel to transport every 1 kcal of energy we get as food. This also generates carbon dioxide emissions. Some forms of transport are worse than others. Air freight generates 50 times more CO2 than sea shipping, which is slower. Our increasing demand for fresh food means it’s increasingly being shipped by faster (and more polluting) means.
A recent major study, “Food, Fuel, and Freeways,” by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa compiled data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find out how far produce traveled. Compare the distances food traveled to a Chicago “terminal market” (where brokers and wholesalers buy produce to sell to grocery stores and restaurants), as opposed to how far produce traveled to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco:
To Terminal Market To Farmers Market
Apples 1,555 miles 105 miles
Tomatoes 1,369 miles 117 miles
Grapes 2,143 miles 151 miles
Beans 766 miles 101 miles
Peaches 1,674 miles 184 miles
Winter Squash 781 miles 98 miles
Greens 889 miles 99 miles
Lettuce 2,055 miles 102 miles
For food to travel long distances, it’s often picked unripe and then treated with chemical ripening gasses during transport. Or it’s highly processed in factories using preservatives, irradiation, and other means to keep it stable for transport and sale. The debate continues over the use and labeling of GMO’s, genetically modified seeds, that produce less perishable produce. As a result
· You can visit a café across the street from a sugar cane field in Hawaii and open packets of sugar that have traveled 10,000 miles: from Hawaii to California for processing, then on to New York for packaging, then all the way back to Hawaii.
· An apple imported to California from New Zealand, halfway around the world, is less expensive than an apple from the historic apple-growing county of Sebastopol, just an hour’s drive from San Francisco.
· In 1996, Britain imported more than 114,000 metric tons of milk. Was this because British dairies could not produce enough milk for the nation’s needs? No; the UK exported almost the same amount of milk that year, 119,000 metric tons.
How does this make any sense?
Commodities brokers have known for thousands of years that it can be more profitable to import and resell goods than it is to produce them internally. For instance, one large truck carrying 50,000 pounds of tomatoes costs less and causes less pollution than 50 smaller trucks carrying 1,000 pounds each. The tradeoff is the excessive packaging, chemical preservatives, lack of taste and freshness, and environmental damage. Then follow the money. Which would you rather do: help create and maintain food-related jobs in your local community or send your dollars out of state and out of country?
Unfortunately, with our global economy, this practice has become the rule, not the exception, in our food system. Now it’s common not only for tropical items such as sugar, coffee, chocolate, tea and bananas, but also fruits and vegetables that can be grown locally on small farms to be shipped around the world. Of course, some crops simply can’t be grown in our climate. But we should consider imported foods as supplements to local foods rather than the other way around. Make a coconut milk curry with local seasonal vegetables. Put local cream in your imported coffee. Dip local strawberries into chocolate grown in the tropics.
Rethinking your food supply doesn’t mean never eating anything that has flown overseas; it just means starting with a base of something fresh, local and seasonal. Shopping at the farmers market, maintaining a home garden, or participating in a CSA are great ways to support a local food system. A few other ideas can include the following:
· Take a survey of your family’s eating habits. List the types of foods your family eats. Can some of these foods be purchased from local growers or producers? Discuss this during a family meal. What do they think? Topics for discussion:
1. Make a list of the stores where your family usually buys their food.
2. Are the stores owned locally or are they national chains?
3. Why does your family choose to shop there?
4. Does your family ever shop at farmers’ markets? If not, what would make it easier to shop at them?
· Start a compost pile outside.
· Plant a small garden this spring. If you don’t have a yard, try raised beds, hanging containers, or pots on the balcony, patio, or windowsill.