Contributing Monkie Sarah Backhouse
Published on May 10, 2010
Munching apples from New Zealand, indulging in some Chilean grapes or devouring Turkish dried apricots has become a guilty pleasure for many Americans. In fact, according to government agencies, 80% of all seafood and 45% of all fresh fruit consumed in the U.S. is imported — which is terrible, right? All those carbon-generating food miles doing untold damage to the environment?
Well, what if I said you may not need to hide your imported blueberries at the bottom of your Whole Foods basket anymore?
According to researchers in the UK, food miles are just part of the picture. And at a conference on the economics of food, Chris Foster of the Manchester Business School presented some important ideas with evidence to support it. He explained that “the biggest environmental impact of many food products came from their production. Bulk transport by land or sea was of low significance.” He went further, suggesting that governments “critically unpick the ‘local food’ agenda.”
How does Foster justify his claims? By pointing out that local food production and distribution — which uses a lot vans and cars — misses out on the benefits of economies of scale. Think about it. The CO2 emitted by one big truck carrying produce to a U.S. supermarket is less than that from 60 different cars and vans delivering food to a local farmers market. Yikes!
Researchers in New Zealand concur. By taking into account the fuel, electricity, fodder, transportation (including the 12,000 mile journey to the UK) and storage, they calculated that a ton of New Zealand apples generated the equivalent of 407 lb. of CO2 compared with 600 lb. for apples grown and consumed domestically in the UK. Further, according the Times, tomatoes grown in Spain’s natural sunshine “have less global warming potential than out-of-season British tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses.”
Confused? Don’t be. Do away with “local or death” and replace it with “life cycle assessment” (or LCA), which encapsulates “the whole environmental impact of growing, transporting, selling and consuming a product – from farm to fork”.
But back to the exotic fruit. This isn’t an open invitation to indulge in as many out of season blueberries as your credit card can handle. Air freighted products still account for 11% of CO2 from food transport. So, opt for sea or road instead.