March of the Produce

The hidden perils of globalization

March of the Produce

While dining recently at my friend Hamish’s house, he apologized for the lack of taste and texture in the vegetables and the bland-tasting fruit salad. “It looked really fresh and it was reasonably priced,” Hamish said. “Why is it so hard to get decent-tasting produce in the winter?”

What Consumers Need to Know

While Hamish may have been dismayed that his checkout bargain turned out to be a dinner table disappointment, he might be surprised to learn that there are a plethora of serious issues to consider regarding the importation and transportation of the produce and goods that we consume. Besides purchasing food that often lacks taste and freshness, we are supporting a globalized food system that not only greatly contributes to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions; but it also adversely affects Canadian food producers, particularly those who supply fresh products to local and regional markets.

The result, similar to the produce in Hamish’s fruit salad, is that a great deal of our food is chalking up air miles at the expense of clean air and our health. Researcher Brian Halweil noted in his 2002 report for Worldwatch, Homegrown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market, “In the United States, food typically travels between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometres from farm to plate, up to 25 percent farther than in 1980. In the United Kingdom, food travels 50 percent farther than it did two decades ago.”

As we transport food to distant markets, there is an increased need for additional packaging, refrigeration, and energy usage, which places further demands on the environment by increasing pollution and waste. Particularly unsettling is that much of the food transportation is needless, especially when trading partners are swapping foods that are basically the same.

Sue Kedgely, a New Zealand Green Party MP, is an outspoken critic of this wasteful practice. In a 2005 speech she questioned why her country, one of the world’s most efficient growers of livestock, imported over 29,000 tons of meat. “These food swaps don’t make environmental sense–or economic sense,” said Kedgely, “if you cost in the environmental and energy costs for transporting food across the world.”

Another prime example of inefficient food swapping is the importation of bottled water from distant climes into our country, which boasts an abundant supply of fresh potable water.

Succinctly summarizing the illogicality of much of our globalized food swapping, Halweil quotes Herman Daly, an ecological economist, who wrote, “Americans import Danish sugar cookies, and Danes import American sugar cookies. Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient.”

Measuring the Environmental Costs

In their study Food, Fuel, and Freeways, researchers at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture explored the unreported costs of the global food system on Iowa and concluded, “External environmental and community costs related to the production, processing, storage, and transportation of the food are seldom accounted for in the food’s price, nor are consumers made aware of these external costs.” The heavy reliance on fossil fuels, the accompanying increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and economic drawbacks for local consumers and producers are significant factors in these “hidden” expenditures.

A 2005 Foodshare Toronto report, Fighting Global Warming at the Farmers’ Market, looked at food items to ascertain the environmental consequences of the distance they travelled from farm to market. “We compared transport distances, energy consumption, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from seven locally produced items and equivalent imported items,” wrote researchers Stephen Bentley and Ravenna Barker. They discovered carrots imported from California travelled more than 4,000 kilometres farther than Ontario-grown carrots, resulting in a CO2 increase of 59 times. Lamb imported from New Zealand created more than eight kilograms of CO2 compared to seven grams generated by the transportation of locally grown lamb.

The FoodShare researchers, factoring in emissions and energy consumption as a result of the shipping process, discovered that the locally grown food, over the course of a year, would create .006316 tonnes of CO2 emissions, while the imported products would weigh in with CO2 emissions of .573 tonnes. (For information on calculating the food miles your food contains, visit leopold.iastate.edu/pubs/staff/ppp/.

A Call for Change

The globalization of the food system is firmly entrenched, and it is difficult for food producers to return to a more regional system of food production and distribution because, as Halweil’s report found, “Subsidies for fossil fuels, roads, and other transportation infrastructure, and for commodity production, for instance, all make food shipped round the world in a refrigerated cargo container, wrapped in layers of plastic, and grown on a highly polluting farm look artificially cheap.”

What’s a Canadian Consumer to Do?

The FoodShare researchers concede that it would be difficult for Canadians to access all of their foods through local agriculture, given the reality of a northern climate and our multicultural society. Yet they found that many of the foods imported into Canada during spring, summer, and fall could be grown in this country with far fewer negative environmental consequences than long-distance food transportation of similar products would incur.

The FoodShare report noted, “Mechanisms that promote urban food production and direct marketing strategies such as farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs can go a long way. Encouraging Canadian wholesalers and retailers to buy local foods when they are available could likewise play a significant role in reducing Canada’s carbon emissions. Further research into season extension strategies could also lessen the impact of global warming by facilitating the development of a local, sustainable food system that operates for much of the year.”

Danielle Murray wrote, “The biggest political action individuals take each day is deciding what to buy and eat. Preferentially buying local foods that are in season can cut transport and farm energy use and can improve food safety and security. Buying fewer processed, heavily packaged, and frozen foods can cut energy use and marketing costs, and using smaller refrigerators can slash household electricity bills. Eating lower on the food chain can reduce pressure on land, water, and energy supplies.”

FoodShare Toronto’s report encourages people to pressure senior levels of governments and the private sector to adopt initiatives that promote improved transportation efficiency and promote the development of energy sources that aren’t fossil fuel- based. In addition, the report’s writers conclude that the introduction of “ecolabels,” which include data regarding food miles and CO2 emissions, would not only assist consumers who are concerned about the environment; but they would also encourage the development and sustainability of local food systems.

As I wrote this article, I discussed many of the environmental and economic themes of food globalization with my buddy, who expressed interest in checking out the local food markets. Hamish, hopefully, will join the legion of citizens who are concerned not only about the quality of their food, but also with the future of the environment and our local economies.

I’ll look forward to my next dining experience at Hamish’s house.

Try the 100-Mile Diet Challenge

Vancouver BC-based writers J.B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith embarked on a quest to eat locally produced foods in June 2005. In their web articles for The Tyee, the pair chronicled their efforts to eat meals prepared with food that was produced within 100 miles of the locale where they were to have a meal, including BC’s Lower Mainland, Okanagan, and northern regions.

Although MacKinnon and Smith discovered that eating locally could be a “grand adventure,” they found it was sometimes a challenge to locate local produce and food. The recounting of their 100-mile diet travails is entertaining, poignant, and thought provoking.

The authors encourage people to try the diet, even if it’s for just one day. Check out their 100-mile diet odyssey at thetyee.ca/Life/2005/06/28/HundredMileDiet/.

Some Simple Solutions

In response to obstacles in the way of localized food production and distribution, there are many individuals and groups lobbying for change. In her 2005 article for the Earth Policy Institute, “Oil and Food: A Rising Security Challenge,” environmental writer Danielle Murray summarized the thoughts of many people: Rather than propping up fossil-fuel-intensive, long-distance food systems through oil, irrigation, and transport subsidies, governments could promote sustainable agriculture, locally grown foods, and energy-efficient transportation.

  • Incentives to use environmentally friendly farming methods such as conservation tillage, organic fertilizer application, and integrated pest management could reduce farm energy use significantly.
  • Rebate programs for energy-efficient appliances and machinery for homes, retail establishments, processors, and farms would cut energy use throughout the food system.
  • Legislation to minimize unnecessary packaging and promote recycling would decrease energy use and waste going to landfills.

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