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Focusing on Food Miles is a Mistake


Fruit truck image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

In The Energy Basis of Food Security I note how tightly linked food prices are to energy prices, pointing out that the primary reason for this link is that food production is incredibly energy intensive. A series of recent posts have explored the energy intensity of different modes of food transport within food systems, and these have attracted a fair amount of attention. This doesn't surprise me as many in the local food movement value highly the fuel savings attributed - sometimes falsely - to reducing the number of 'food miles' associated with their grocery lists. While I'm all for reducing the energy demands associated with food production, I think the singular attention given to the issue of food miles is misguided, and I'll use this post to explain why.

In The Energy Cost of Food I articulated how energy is used throughout the US food system [1, 2]. The component of this that equates to the energy cost of 'food miles' is quite small; of the 12 calories of industrial energy invested in each edible calorie of food in 2002, only 0.4 calories were used in long-distance food transport, which means the other 11.6 calories were used elsewhere in the food system, such as on farms, in food processing plants, at wholesale and retail food outlets, at restaurants and other food service establishments, and, of course, in people's homes. In Towards an Energy Standard of 'Local' I presented data that suggests that local food transported from a producer directly to a retail outlet such as a farmers' market can indeed use less fuel per unit food delivered, but as a percentage of the total energy used in food systems these savings are tiny, perhaps even negligible. If we want to make a meaningful dent in overall food systems energy use, we aren't going to do it just by reducing the amount of energy used to transport food.

ECoFFigTransportation of food, over long distances or short, represents a tiny share of the total energy invested in food production. Far more energy is used on farms, in food processing plants of all sorts, in the wholesale warehouses and retail outlets where food is stored or displayed before sale, and finally within households where consumers refrigerate, freeze, process and cook food after driving to a grocery store, farmers' market or food service establishment to acquire it. If we really want to make strides in reducing the energy intensity of food, these latter areas are where we'll find most opportunities for efficiency gains.

On many of the farms I've worked on, fuel use associated with machinery and indirect energy use associated with fertilizers, pesticides, animal feeds and other farm inputs make up most of the energy use. Exactly how to reduce these energy inputs while maintaining yields and overall farm viability will vary from farm to farm, but at the farm level this is where attention needs to be focused. As for food processors I'm sure there are efficiency gains to be found within most operations but, at the end of the day, I find myself wondering why we process so much of our food? Controversial as this suggestion will surely be, I think we'd do well to eliminate most commercial food processing and switch to diets of foods as whole and unprocessed as possible. This would take a sizable chunk out of our food system's energy budget straight up, and would probably leave us healthier. The local food movement, insofar as it pushes direct marketing, could well reduce the energy intensity of food by reducing our reliance on wholesale and retail outlets, which use lots of energy in food storage and displays, although small farms still use some energy to wash, package, refrigerate and freeze certain products. As far as food service establishments go, with the exception of some veritable gourmet outlets that legitimately serve really good food, most restaurants don't exactly offer healthy fare so cutting our reliance on this sector will also offer benefits besides just energy savings.

Finally, within households, where over a quarter of the energy invested in food is used, consumers actually have direct control over how much energy they use in the service of storing and preparing the foods they buy. Modern refrigerator-freezers, while certainly more efficient than those of 30 years ago, are often the single largest user of electricity in a household unless electricity's used for heat, and adjusting buying patterns to allow for a smaller unit can pay big dividends. Beyond this, fermentation is an excellent way to preserve vegetables and some fruits and meats without the need for refrigeration or freezing. Cooking can also be fairly energy intensive, with many dishes requiring far more energy input from modern cooking appliances than they deliver in edible food calories.

My goal with this post isn't necessarily to pull the rug out from beneath the local food movement, but rather to encourage 'foodies' to reconsider how their movement can fit within a broader goal of reducing energy use within food systems. Focusing on reducing food miles is a mistake, and to see a meaningful reduction in energy demand throughout the food system will require a far broader approach.

Notes

  1. Patrick Canning, et al. (2010) Energy Use in the US Food System. Report by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
  2. Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System. United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Estimates of food availability corrected for waste and spoilage are called ‘loss-adjusted’ by the USDA, and are used as a proxy for food that’s eaten by a person.

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