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Food Well-Travelled?

Linking food to footprint

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Food Well-Travelled?

Food miles indicate the real cost to the planet of moving our food from farm to market. Learn how to reduce your food's carbon footprint.

Take a look at that luscious, juicy mango on your plate. Your mouth is no doubt watering as you anticipate digging into its sweet ripeness.

But the sweetness of that mango–or clementine or strawberry–starts to sour a bit when you consider the environmental cost of growing the crop and transporting it to your table.

It’s Come a Long Way

In 2005 the Region of Waterloo (Ontario) Public Health released some sobering statistics about the “food miles” that indicate the real cost to the planet of moving our food from farm to market.

“The imports of 58 commonly eaten foods travel an average of 4,497 km (2,794 mi) to Waterloo Region,” says the report. “These imports account for 51,709 tons of GHG [greenhouse] emissions annually, contributing to climate change and air quality, which both have an effect on human health.”

More importantly, the Waterloo report includes only the foods that can be grown in that region. The scientists estimated that switching from imports to locally produced foods could save nearly 50,000 tons of GHG emissions a year from the trucks that bring the foods from faraway producers. That saving would be the equivalent of taking 16,191 cars off the road.

The biggest culprit? Beef. The average burger or steak travels 5,770 km (3,585 mi) to get to Waterloo’s tables. If you are a vegetarian, you probably think the cost of your pears wouldn’t be as high as that.

While you’d be right, the cost is still enormous. If you live in southern Ontario, your pear may have travelled more than 6,000 km (3,700 mi) to reach your neck of the woods, and the annual GHG emissions to get it there may be the equivalent of removing 1,641 cars from the road–561 times more than if you’d bought a locally produced fruit that probably ripened longer on the tree and thus contains more nutrients.

Meat Out-Travels Veggies

The environmental impact of meat production in terms of water and land use far exceeds the cost of vegetable protein production. It takes about 10 grams of grain to produce 1 g of meat. In addition, 1 g of meat requires about 26 times the amount of water to produce than does 1 g of vegetable protein.

Food Miles Calculator

You can find an excellent food miles calculator for foods imported to Canada and transported within the country at lifecyclesproject.ca/initiatives/food_directory.

In November 2005 the Waterloo Region (Ontario) Public Health department released a report called “Food Miles: Environmental Implications of Food Imports to Waterloo Region.” It reported the distance travelled of 58 commonly eaten foods that could have been grown in their region.

Here are the top 10 imported food item contributors to GHG emissions in the Waterloo Region of Ontario.

ProductAverage distance travelled (km)GHG* (kg annually/kg imported food# of times more emissions than local product
beef5,77015,729667
pears6,0545,016561
lettuce3,7264,709125
tomatoes2,8002,800135
potatoes2,8322,50494
peppers3,2812,381229
apples5,9251,924148
onions3,5701,771115
cheese5,2781,665687
carrots3,9361,489129

*GHG: greenhouse gas

Research shows that, in general, the carbon footprint of a beef burger is about 25 times that of a soy burger, but there are some variables that may balance out the equation.

When you take into account the long-distance air transport, deep freezing, and horticultural practices, “long-distance transported vegetarian foods may actually have a bigger carbon footprint than locally produced organic beef,” says the Waterloo report’s author Lucas Reijnders, of the University of Amsterdam.

There are some who would say that food miles are an oversimplification and remind us to take into account such things as agricultural practices in other countries and efficiency of transportation. One New Zealand study claims that sustainable farming techniques make lamb produced in New Zealand environmentally cheaper for the British market than locally grown British lamb, even taking into consideration the approximately 18,000 km (11,000 mi) transport.

The 100-Mile Pledge

Some hardy types have vowed for health and environmental reasons to restrict their diets to food produced within 100 miles (roughly 161 km) of their homes. Most of them found this commitment difficult to fulfill, requiring considerable sacrifice.

The “100-mile pledge” might be impossible if you want to cook with extra-virgin olive oil in Vancouver, if you’re craving wild-caught salmon in Saskatoon, or if you want oranges in Quebec. Forget about grains entirely if you live in BC–they’re just not grown there in commercial quantities.

What Can You Do?

Most of us don’t want to take the 100-mile pledge, but we want to do our part in reducing the ecological impact of foods travelling long distances to our pantries. Consumers are increasingly asking not only how their food was grown but also where.

Of course, labels will usually tell you where produce was grown, but this is not necessarily the case for meat and dairy products.

If your supermarket isn’t labelling foods so you know what is local, a simple first step would be to ask the manager to do so, suggests Greg Horn, author of Living Green: A Practical Guide to Simple Sustainability (Freedom Press, 2006).

Regardless of how difficult it is to keep the 100-mile pledge, it’s still something worth striving for. “In the long-term,” says Horn, “we need to support local agriculture, encourage local farmers, and make sure there is a thriving market for their products.”

“My advice to people is to get started somehow,” Horn explains. “It’s a continuum of steps between doing nothing and moving onto an organic farm and producing all your food yourself. Neither is very practical in my mind. The best advice is to arm yourself with information and do what you can to make the right choices.”

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