Transporting Our Food

So far in the Month of Action, we’ve examined home energy use and personal transportation. Today we turn our attention to our transportation of food.

Based upon a 2000 study by the Center for Sustainable Systems at University of Michigan, the average item of food in the U.S. travels around 1,500 miles to your table. By another estimate that includes transportation of inputs to farms and factories, typical food items travel up to 4,200 miles in their journey along the supply chain. Regardless of how and what you measure, the conclusion is clear: our food travels a long way to get to us these days.

Over three quarters of that second number above comes from inputs in the food production process. This means that in the carbon-calculating process, where your food producer gets his or her goods is three times as important as where you get your food. For example, buying beef from a local cattle farmer might actually be worse than buying beef from a thousand miles away if your local farmer gets her feed shipped from across the continent.

Production accounts for 45% of food’s carbon footprint, and shipping inputs and food transportation account for 29% of most food’s total carbon footprint. That means that the rest of your food’s carbon footprint comes from your driving to the store or restaurant to get it, as driving in a family vehicle is far less efficient than your food’s travel in a tightly-packed semi-truck.

So what should we do?

Today’s suggested action is: reduce your food’s carbon footprint.

Refrain from purchasing out of season food from far away; maybe limit yourself to one or two produce items from outside your region. Or start your own vegetable garden this weekend.

Purchase some panniers and start biking your groceries from the store. Or resolve to patronize your neighborhood grocer or farmer’s market.

Find out what “local” means to your local farmers, and encourage them to purchase supplies from local producers as well.

Buying local can result in fresher and tastier food, a healthy local economy, and reduced carbon emissions. But there’s no cookie-cutter approach to how to eat sustainably. Truly reducing your food’s carbon footprint requires an investment in your community and in understanding your local food system.

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