Thinking About Food Miles and Carbon Footprints with Common Sense.

green earth in fieldI know this might sound pompous (my daughter’s favorite word these days), but I have some free advice about eating. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon to eat in a more healthful, environmentally friendly, sustainable way. You don’t have to be an amazing cook, or use a carbon calculator for every meal. All you have to do is think about what you are eating.

I am irritated by the debate, by well-meaning food folks, about whether eating local food is really a good way to reduce the impact of your food choices on carbon emissions. This debate suggests a phony choice – if food miles matter, then nothing else does. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Food miles” are a measure of the distance food travels from farm to plate. As far as I know, this concept caught fire after a 2003 study came out from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture comparing food miles traveled by local produce in Iowa and conventional produce within the U.S. The study found that the non-local produce had traveled an average of 1500 miles,

compared to 56 miles for local produce. Since then, there has been a lot of overgeneralizing of the 1500 mile statistic: the original study looked at only 16 crops, and excluded crops grown outside the U.S.

Local food advocates, including me, have suggested that one of the many benefits of eating from your local area is that it will, in general, reduce the carbon footprint of your food. Others have responded by finding all the other aspects of food production, including chemical inputs of conventional farming, the massive carbon footprint of factory meat production, processing, and food storage, to argue that local food is not important. They are right, of course, that there are many factors that influence how much carbon food contributes to the atmosphere. My answer is, so what? Of course there is often not a simple linear relationship between food miles and carbon emissions. But it does not follow that food miles don’t matter.

A recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology made the following claims:

  1. Food accounts for 13% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Most greenhouse gas emissions (83%) from food come from the production phase, while only 11% come from transportation.
  3. In an average U.S.household, meat and dairy account for about half of the greenhouse gas emissions from food.
  4. Switching away from red meat and dairy to vegetables or even fish, poultry and eggs substantially reduces the carbon footprint of your food.

This is a useful study. But it has been used to argue that food miles are irrelevant, just because other food choices (factory farmed meat versus vegetables) are so important. And, it leaves out all the other factors that so often make locally produced food carbon friendlier. The local food at our farmer’s markets and grocery stores is mostly organic, unprocessed, and, if its meat, grass-fed.

Other articles have questioned the food miles concept, and have suggested it is very difficult to make good choices. I think this is silly.

If you stop for a minute to think, it obvious that many factors will affect the carbon emissions associated with a particular food. Conventional vs. organic techniques, use of fuel in cultivation, mode of transport, processing, storage, and on and on. Trucked, flown, or shipped? Refrigerated, frozen, cooked, or canned? Does this mean food miles are a useless concept? No. But it is overly simplistic as a complete guide of what to eat. I’m sure you can reason this out for yourself.

So rather than argue that food miles are irrelevant, we need to just use our brains a little bit when we decide what to put in our mouths.

Larry Lev, an agricultural economist at Oregon State University, told me once you can sum up the motto of industrial agriculture as: “Just eat it.” He was suggesting, I think, that our entire agricultural system is based on each of us, every day, not considering what we are eating, where it came from, how it was produced, how it makes us feel, what it does to our planet, or even, often, how it really tastes.

I believe he’s right. And once we start to think about these things when we eat, everything will start to change for the better.

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About the Author

Carla writes about food, agriculture, climate change, and other environmental topics from her home in Corvallis, Oregon. She lives with her husband, 8-year-old daughter, and 2-year-old Lab, Daisy. She is a biologist with a Ph.D. in plant conservation genetics from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her work experience includes: organic farming, environmental education, high school and college science teaching, natural resource policy analysis, environmental consulting, and rare plant scientific research. In 2004, after weathering the deaths of three loved-ones and being bitterly disappointed by the election results, Carla resolved to work more directly for the change she wants to see in the world. Currently she writes about the environment, and works on local food issues and climate change. She is especially interested in integrating good scientific information into her writing because she believes in the power of knowledge to save the world. When she isn't working, she is busy being a mom, keeping the house together, discovering local foods, and getting outside.
  • Seth

    Carla, Hurray for this article! Another point to consider (I think) is that eating locally sustains the possibility for local farmers to decrease the carbon footprint in the future. In other words, by eating locally we help small local farms stick around… farms that in the future may figure out better ways to get unprocessed food to, say, farmers markets in less-energy consumptive ways. Once we figure this out, there will be no competition regarding carbon-savings between distant vs. local food: the locals will win every time! On the other hand, if we don’t sustain local farmers, that possibility won’t exist in the future.

  • Carla Wise

    Yes, you are right about this. The loss of farms, farmers and good farm land around communities is one of the greatest threats to a sustainable future. Thanks for the comment!

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