The concepts of carbon footprints and food miles have received much press. The benefits of local produce consumption include freshness, taste and community support. Plus, transporting foods fewer miles “from farm to fork” would seem to consume less fossil fuel. A recent Zogby Interactive poll found that 88% of Americans wish retail foods were labeled with country of origin. The U.K. grocery chain Tesco has committed to reducing its carbon footprint, defined by Wikipedia as “the total amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service.” (Tesco will measure its “direct carbon footprint” that excludes the energy food suppliers require to produce and transport food.) Such efforts are useful and good. However, I also am proud to be a part of an industry that processes food and transports it globally.
Growing up in Minnesota, where the growing season extends from July 15 to 19, I developed an early appreciation for “imported” and preserved food. My mother pointed out that bottled orange juice helps prevent scurvy and canned carrots help vision. Although I now write about nutrients for heart and gut health, it should be remembered that fortified and preserved foods, supplements and mass transportation are hugely instrumental in eradicating nutritional diseases, such as rickets and pellagra, in many parts of the world. In addition, the benefits of reduced food miles are not always clear.
In the report “Food Miles—Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry,” researchers considered numerous agricultural factors like water and fertilizer use, as well as food miles, to calculate that a ton of New Zealand lamb shipped 11,000 miles to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide compared to British lamb that produced 6,280 pounds.
A New York Times writer, James McWilliams, notes that it is thus four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it locally. This was also true for certain other foods. It is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet with only local foods, and consumers will always demand choices beyond what the season offers.
On a personal note, I’m now enjoying my overly bountiful tomato crop. Should I can them, transport them to work or leave bags of them on my neighbors’ doorsteps in the dark of night (they have grown excess, too)?