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Beyond Food Miles

Beyond Food Miles
Posted Mar 9, 2011 by Michael Bomford

“There is nothing as deceptive as an obvious fact”
-Sherlock Holmes

A locavore is “a person who endeavors to eat only locally produced food.”[1] What better diet could there be for an energy constrained world? After all the average food item travels more than 5,000 miles from farm to fork.[3] It seems obvious that eating locally will go a long way to reducing food system energy use.
A local diet can reduce energy use somewhat, but there are even more effective ways to tackle the problem. Single-minded pursuit of local food, without consideration of the bigger picture, can actually make things worse from an energy perspective
Transportation is the smallest piece of the food system energy pie. Even farming isn’t a particularly big contributor. The big energy users turn out to be food processing, packaging, selling, and preparation. Our kitchens command the biggest slice of the pie, using twice as much energy as the farms that grew the food in the first place.

Dissecting that little transportation component of the system offers more surprises. The distance food travels between farm and fork has little impact on how much energy it takes to get there.

How food travels is far more important than how far it goes.[6] Big boats, like freighters and barges, can bring vast quantities of food thousands of miles using less energy per ton than a small truck or car uses to transport smaller amounts of food a few miles. Over land, freight trains are more energy efficient than big trucks, which are more efficient than small trucks. Worst of all are airplanes, which use a disproportionately large amount of fuel for takeoff and landing. In almost every case, flying food uses more fuel than other means of transport, regardless of the distance it travels.
Since the distance food travels has little impact on total food system energy use, obsessing over ‘food miles’ probably isn’t helpful when we're looking for ways to reduce energy consumption. When food is purchased from major grocery or fast food chain, the distance to the farm where it grew is probably just a small fraction of the distance it has traveled overall.
Buying from the local farmers’ market offers great opportunities to cut down on food system energy use, but it's not because the food there has traveled less than the food at the grocery store. [11] It's because the aisles of a typical grocery store are mostly filled with highly-processed and packaged food, while farmers markets offer mostly whole or minimally-processed foods. Grocery stores are artificially heated and lit, with plenty of electricity-hungry coolers, freezers, checkouts, and other conveniences. By contrast, farmers’ markets tend to be held in the open air, with few electric gadgets. The farmers’ market saves energy by carving it out of the processing, packaging, and retail segments of the food chain, which are much larger than the transportation segment. From this perspective, the backyard garden offers all of the advantages of a farmers’ market, and then some.
Highly-processed and packaged foods simply require far more energy than whole foods, regardless of how far they travel. Choosing imported whole foods over local processed foods almost always reduces food system energy use.

The way that food is grown usually has a bigger impact on energy use than the distance it travels. The proportional impact of farming on food system energy use is substantial for whole foods, but trivial for highly processed foods. Since organic farmers reduce agricultural energy inputs by about a third by eschewing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, choosing organic over local can make sense for whole foods. It makes little difference for highly-processed foods, however.

Choosing local food is one way to reduce food system energy use; but even more effective ways include:

1. Choosing whole foods over processed foods;
2. Getting a small, energy-efficient refrigerator and getting rid of extra refrigerators;
3. Replacing animal products with grain and vegetable-based proteins;
4. Drinking tap water instead of processed beverages;
5. Choosing food that was grown in a region well-suited to the crop, using methods that build soil and rely primarily on sunshine for energy and rainfall for water.

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