I have a mild obsession with our food system and how it affects both human and environmental health and I would like to briefly discuss how much distance our food must travel. This is especially important because the global nature of the economy has broken down many of the ecological barriers previously in place. This can result in the introduction of non-native and/or invasive species and reduce the food supply for indigenous species resulting in an increasingly weakened state of the local ecosystem.
The first point I would like to address is how far food actually travels. This information is based on a comparison of the distance to terminal (wholesale) and farmer’s market in Chicago:
Terminal Market vs. Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
Apples: 1,555 miles vs. 105 miles
Tomatoes: 1,369 miles vs. 117 miles
Grapes: 2,143 miles vs. 151 miles
Beans: 766 miles vs. 101 miles
Peaches: 1,674 miles vs. 184 miles
Winter Squash: 781 miles vs. 98 miles
Greens: 889 miles vs. 99 miles
Lettuce: 2,055 miles vs. 102 miles
As you can see, the discrepancy is not marginal. It is in fact quite staggering. Even more alarming and a bit confusing is the fact that an apple that has been transported 1500 miles is often less expensive than the apple picked 10 miles down the road. How does that happen? I have no idea, but it is a truth that needs to change in order to develop a food system that is equitable and sustainable on a long-term basis.
So, let us look at that 1500 mile trip.
It is likely that the fruit/vegetable was picked before ideal ripeness in order to allow time for shipment. When the fruit is not ripe, but sellers are ready to sell, chemicals are often used in order to speed the process along.
What is required for this? You guessed it, chemicals!
What do chemicals used for speeding the ripening process and long-distance transportation have in common? Neither is environmentally friendly. In fact, it is estimated that we currently put almost 10 kcal of fossil fuel energy into our food system for every 1 kcal of energy we get as food. Furthermore, as people are increasingly demanding fresh fruits and vegetables, even out of season, shippers are switching from semi-ecologically friendly sea shipping to air transport which produces 50 times more CO2.
And, what’s my point?
I love bananas as much, if not more, than the next person. However, their year-round availability at around $.50/lb. has serious environmental implications. Still, I don’t know that am going to give up bananas anytime soon. Instead, I look at how I CAN mitigate the damage that I am causing through my food consumption habits.
This starts at home or another place in one’s community. It can take the form of growing even a single tomato plant on a windowsill (saving ~1200 miles in transportation ‘costs’), to joining a CSA or community garden, to choosing to primarily consume food that is locally in seasoned and generally unprocessed (I will save that rant for another day!).
It sounds simple because it is simple. And if everyone with the ability to make one small change did, those small steps would amount to a big step (or several) in the right direction.
Source: Agriculture, C. f. (2013). How Far Does Your Food Travel to Get to Your Plate?