Food Miles

While shopping at the local upscale food store and looking across the apple options, I noticed that even though I’m based on the East Coast, every variety of apple was from Washington State, 3000 miles away. That’s a long highway trip to reach my taste buds.

It seems that there are plenty of orchards across Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland that could supply the Washington DC market, where I live.  What happens to all those apples – are they squeezed into apple cider or ironically shipped to the West Coast?

Food Components Of Your Food Miles: Greenhouse gases generated producing the fertilizers, processing the final product,  food miles, and packaging it are the key components that impact the size of our carbon footprints from your food purchase choices. For now, we’ll just focus on food miles and its impact on your carbon footprint.

Calculated Food Miles: A recent Iowa State  by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture calculated the average food miles for the most eadily available produce. This study calculated that a locally grown apple travels on average 61 miles to a nearby market, versus the conventional sourced apples that travels 1726 miles – 28 times further.  Locally grown lettuce travels on average travels 43 miles compared to 1,823 for conventional sourced lettuce.  This chart spells it out across other popular produce. You get the point.  Does produce really need to travel that far?

Locavore is a popular term being tossed around these days. According to Wikepedia, Locavore is a collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies – one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.   There’s even an iPhone App, Locavore, which Green Blizzard will review as its January ’11 App of the Month.

But is eating locally grown produce a realistic way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions.  Close proximity (fewer food miles) isn’t the only key to a reduced carbon footprint from your eating habits and food purchase decisions, but an important first step.

Buy Locally Or Ship It In ? Some advocates suggest that we should let efficient market forces dictate.  In Europe, a study was conducted to see, from a carbon footprint perspective, if it was better to buy tomatoes grown in greenhouses in the U.K. or to ship tomatoes grown in the Spanish natural heat?   Turns out, growing the produce in Spain and transporting it by ship to various European markets generated a smaller footprint because of the energy used to warm the greenhouses in the U.K was greater than what the ship consumed.  But these tomatoes were moved by ship, supposedly a more energy efficient modes rather than over the highway in trucks like most of the U.S. produce.

Rule of Thumb: Green Blizzard has not yet been able to determine if there is hard and fast rule to use in guiding your purchase decisions based only on food miles, but combined with the other food producing carbon components (organic and packaging), buying locally generally is a good way to reduce your carbon footprint.  There’s no easy precise answer to the buy local vs. conventional sourced produce, but Green Blizzard clearly recommends buying locally unpackaged organic versus what are now labels as conventional sources options.

With each local purchase decision you make, you’re sending a vote with your dollars towards building a larger efficient locally sustainable food production source and maybe one day soon, conventionally will mean, local and organic produce.

Be sure to visit the Green Blizzard bookstore for recommended green reading and other products.  Here are some other Green Blizzard food related articles that you will enjoy reading: Which Fruits and Vegetables Have the Lowest Carbon Impact, Are We Eating Fish into Extinction, Carbon Impact of MeatsSun Tea, Aqua Culture Causing Carbon Ripples, or Local Produce


About the author

Keith Blizzard

A life-long environmentalist, Keith set out on the never ending journey of adjusting his lifestyle to a more sustainable one, with a goal of annually shrinking his carbon footprint. When he looked around for a dependable source of meaningful carbon footprint reduction ideas, it was pretty lame - so he launched Green Blizzard loaded with eco-friendly lifestyle tweaks. When he's not managing Green Blizzard, you'll find him on the trails around Mid Coast Maine with his trusty trail companion mutt, Moose.