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Food Miles

Surprise -- your potatoes are better traveled than you are. American food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to table, reports the Worldwatch Institute.

A "food mile" is the distance food travels from the farm to the store where you buy it, and these miles are costly to the environment. They are, in fact, among the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Long-haul trucking requires enormous amounts of fossil fuel, the combustion of which releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Keeping food cold and unbruised requires even more fuel in the form of refrigeration and packaging. And let's not forget the impact of long-distance flyers such as apples from New Zealand and Chilean grapes. Distances have been increasing in recent decades, as foods increasingly are imported.

If you live in Iowa, according to one study, there's a very good chance you're buying tomatoes picked 1,569 miles from your local supermarket, even though farmers grow them within 60 miles of the loading dock. But why pick on Iowans? We've all seen those rock-hard tomatoes - and that's the second great tragedy of shipping food long distances. By the time they arrive, you forget exactly what they're supposed to taste like. And guess which tomatoes taste better and are better for you? Locally grown, of course.

Add it all up, and it’s clear: If your food earned airline frequent-flier miles, you’d be jetting to Europe for free. A Swedish study looked at the ingredients of a typical Swedish breakfast -- apple, bread, butter, cheese, coffee, cream, orange juice, and sugar - and determined the food traveled a distance equivalent to the circumference of the earth. That's 24,901 miles.

The idea has been floated to add food labels that tell consumers how far a food traveled to get to the store. That hasn’t gotten anywhere (it’s pushed more in Europe), but there is a growing movement to "Think Globally, Eat Locally."

Moral: By buying fresh local foods, less fuel is burned to get a meal to you. Plus, notice how it usually tastes more flavorful and fresher.

Wonky footnote: There’s a debate going on that argues that it’s more energy-efficient to raise particular foods in particular places – such as lamb in New Zealand, as noted in a 2007 New York Times story. So, could it be more environmentally sound to ship some foods long distances? Here’s a study that hints at an answer: Tomatoes grown in the ground in Spain and shipped to Sweden require less overall energy to produce and ship than tomatoes grown in a hot greenhouse in Sweden, according to a study by the Leopold Center (see It argued that it’s important to examine fuel use and carbon-dioxide emissions across all sectors of the food system. Still, the same Leopold study recommended that Iowa consumers buy regionally grown foods and grow their own fruits and veggies at home or community gardens.


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Written By: Sally Deneen




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