Racking up the food miles

Racking up the food miles

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

DID you ponder much about your Thanksgiving dinner? Most of us probably didn't mark the occasion by really thinking about the unprecedented bounty of our food system.

However, some like to twist the occasion of Thanksgiving as a means to condemn agriculture's productivity and subsequently categorize the food system as being too industrialized and complex.

For those people, the desire is to revert to something slower, smaller and simpler. They view turning the food system back in time as a favorable process.

One primary indicator of what they see as wrong is the measure of food miles. That is, we're too dependent on a far-away food supply. Moreover, they believe getting it from there to here unnecessarily contributes to global warming.

With that in mind, let's consider a truckload (48,000 lb.) of strawberries or lettuce or any other fruit or vegetable being shipped from California's Central Valley to a warehouse in the Midwest. That trip is approximately 2,500 miles; at the point of delivery, the outcome is equivalent to 0.05 miles per pound.

Now, consider a local farmer who can produce 300 lb. of a given product during the growing season. Let's assume he/she has a contract with the warehouse to make a delivery on a weekly basis. We'll further assume that the farm is 50 miles from the warehouse and that the local producer goes home empty, making the roundtrip 100 miles — versus the previously mentioned semi that picks up another load following delivery. Based on those assumptions, the local farmer's product represents 0.3 miles per pound — six times more than the conventional supply network.

Researchers Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews at Carnegie Mellon University further point out that food miles are not necessarily an important measure when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) contribution.

"We find that although food is transported long distances, ... the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household's 8.1 ton CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year footprint for food consumption," they said. "Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%."

Mike Gibney, in his book Something to Chew On, explains the dilemma this way:

"The idea of buying local seems attractive and, certainly, all the leading restaurant chefs would insist on using local food. But it is simply not feasible for all of our food to be local unless we want to go back a long time when we did rely mostly on local food but which led to a poor diet. The breadth of variety we have today requires food miles, and from the available data, this is not a major factor in the overall CO2 economy. Moreover, buying local could have a negative effect not just because production might be less energy efficient for climate reasons but also because, from a nutritional point of view, foods which are important in this regard may not be capable of being locally produced."

Now, consider Amazon's newest venture: grocery delivery. The venture was the focus of a recent article in The Wall Street Journal ("Amazon Puts Groceries in Its Shopping Cart").

One observation that particularly caught my attention noted that "Amazon will only offer the service in areas dense enough to keep the cost per delivery at or below $9. ... The challenge is to get higher customer density in a given area, cutting delivery costs."

In other words, the company's strategy is leveraged on food miles: locate in urbanized, population-dense areas (generally a long distance from food sources) while providing consistent supply and variety year-round.

That business model won't survive with only local, seasonal offerings. Stated another way, while we might say we like local food, the free market probably knows us better than we know ourselves.

The good news is that the food system allows us to embrace year-round variety AND buy locally too. There's room for both, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Have food, will travel."

Volume:85 Issue:50

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