Written by Nicole Shimizu, Communications and Outreach
The miles that your food travels to get to your plate on average in the US is about 1,500 miles (CUESA).
Food miles refers to the distance a food item travels from producer to consumer. It is a term that can be extended to include the distance from consumer to landfill as well. Food miles are one of the factors used to determine the environmental impact and carbon emissions of food. If you’re interested in calculating the food miles of certain foods, the Food Miles website has a Food Miles Calculator that offers a rough estimate of food miles traveled between countries.
“Food production, distribution and consumption patterns have undergone a major transformation over the past 50 years” which results in retailers with complex and worldwide distribution systems and seasonal foods available year round for the supermarket consumer (GDRC). While it is incredibly convenient to have foods we crave whenever, this ignores the underlying problems associated with these conveniences. Food miles can be problematic as they, along with our food systems, are deeply intertwined with the fossil fuel economy. In addition to the large amounts of fossil fuels consumed and carbon emissions emitted from the transport of foodstuffs, another concerning result of our current food system is the procedures used to keep produce fresh. This includes picking unripe fruits and ripening them with ethylene after transport to keep them from spoiling or processing produce in factories to ensure that they last longer (CUESA).
Beyond the broad swath of reasons why food miles can be detrimental to the environment in the way of carbon emissions, something to note is the community benefits from shopping and eating locally. You are able to put your dollars back into your community rather than funding large corporations, build a sense of community with those around you, and develop self-sufficiency within your community. These are just a few of the reasons why cutting down food miles could be beneficial besides carbon emission reduction.
Something else to consider when thinking about how to reduce your carbon footprint or the carbon emissions associated with your diet comes from an article by Harvard University on the significance of food miles. It turns out that for different diets, the way that you can most significantly reduce the carbon emissions associated with diet and foods is different. For example, “For most American diets, the carbon cost of transportation is slight compared to the carbon cost of production” (Leavens, 2017). Therefore, the most effective way to reduce the larger portion of carbon emissions associated with a diet with animal products is to eliminate or reduce the consumption of animal products rather than to eat locally. In contrast, for vegans or others who follow a plant-based diet, food miles make up a far larger percentage of their diet’s carbon footprint since “Plant-based foods have lower production footprints, so transportation is comparatively more significant” (Leavens, 2017).
Leavens posits mode of transportation as a factor of further consideration. Not only do raw food miles matter, but it also matters through what mode of transportation the food was transported. In terms of fuel efficiency, cargo ships are the most efficient, then trains, then trucks, and finally planes (Leavens, 2017). To put the difference in efficiency into perspective, “flying one ton of food is close to 70 times more carbon intensive than transporting the same weight via a large cargo ship” (Leavens, 2017). It is often difficult to track what mode of transport your food came by, but it is something to consider when thinking about how far your food traveled from farm to table.
Of course there are many other factors to consider besides food miles when determining the overall impact of food such as water usage, energy consumption (either fossil fuel or renewable), and farmers rights. Food miles are simply one way that invites you to think more critically about your values when it comes to food and when or where local foods reflect those values.
It is also important to address the fact that those who can afford to factor in food miles when looking at different foods have privilege. The price and convenience of local food might be hard to attain even with assistance through programs such as SNAP with its Double Up Food Bucks at farmers’ markets. This is not meant to be an exclusionary article. This is merely to educate people about what food miles are and their carbon impact.
“How Far Does Your Food Travel to Get to Your Plate?” CUESA, https://cuesa.org/learn/how-far-does-your-food-travel-get-your-plate.
Leavens, Molly. “Do food miles really matter?” Harvard University Sustainability, 7 March 2017, https://green.harvard.edu/news/do-food-miles-really-matter.
Srinivas, Hari. “And Now Food Miles.” GDRC, https://www.gdrc.org/uem/footprints/food-miles.html.