EDF Climate 411 Blog - October 11, 2007
Food Miles: Is Local Always Better?

When it's apple season here in New York and the green markets are overflowing, for a store to ship in apples from Washington State or New Zealand burns fuel for no good reason. Local food is fresher, tastes better, and supports the community. And locally produced food often results in lower greenhouse gas emissions - but not always. The greenhouse gas calculation is complicated, and you can't assume that if a crop is produced locally, greenhouse gas emissions are lower.

For starters, the term "food mile" is itself problematic. A mile travelled by a large truck full of groceries is not the same as a mile travelled by a mini-van carrying a crate of carrots. A report published by DEFRA [PDF], Britain's environment and farming ministry, says it's more useful to think in terms of "food-vehicle miles" (the miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) and food-tonne miles (which considers the tonnage being carried).

The DEFRA report contains several counterintuitive findings:

  • Trucking in tomatoes from Spain during the winter produces less greenhouse gas emissions than growing them in heated greenhouses in Britain.
  • A shift towards local food systems might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles travelled. This is because supermarket-based food systems have central distribution depots, short supply chains, and big full trucks. In local food systems, food is distributed in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.

But the DEFRA report is not the last word on the subject. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found different results in its 2001 study "Food, Fuel and Freeways". They reported that conventional food systems used 4 to 17 times more fuel and emitted 5 to 17 times more CO2 than local and regional food systems, depending on the system and truck type.

A Lincoln University study [PDF] included elements they called "factor inputs and externalities" in analyzing the impact of food miles - for example, the amount of water and fertilizer used, harvesting and storage techniques, means of transport, and dozens of other aspects of cultivation. They found that lamb raised on New Zealand's lush pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of CO2 per ton, while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds. The reason? British pastures provide poorer grazing, forcing farmers to use feed. They found similar results for dairy products and fruit.

There's a push for "food miles" labeling in both the U.S. and Europe. North Carolina State University's Center for Environmental Farming Systems is working with FoodLogiQ to develop a pilot program in North Carolina with an eye towards national implementation. Local food is fresher and supports the community, so a locale label can tell you that much. But "local" doesn't necessarily mean lower greenhouse gas emissions. That depends largely on how the food is produced and transported. Just knowing where the food was produced doesn't tell you that.

The author of today's post, Sheryl Canter, is an Online Writer and Editorial Manager at Environmental Defense.

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