Questions About the Carbon Costs of Food


I have some opinions and concerns about the road food takes to get to our table.  Although I have always been less about the distance food actually travels than I am about other factors in food production, I did write about the new term “Locavore”, the 2007 Word of the Year a few months ago.  People who consider themselves Locavores try to eat only food that has been produced within a few miles of where they live.  A locavore has their heart in a well intentioned place and buying food, and other items, locally is very important. But, I have always had a few concerns about what seems to be the main premise of the locavore movement… that the food that travels the least distance before you eat it, uses less carbon to get to the dining table.

This can be a difficult opinion to express for someone like me that is a whole-hearted enthusiast and supporter of local foods.  However, to be ethical, we need to point out all the factors involved in the discussion about the carbon footprint of food, not only the ones that support our own views.  I will follow this article with one that details many of the reasons we all should be buying as much of our food as we can locally.  Today, however, I discuss the carbon footprint of food and the belief that the fewer miles food travels to get to our table, the lower the carbon cost of that food.

Most studies show that the means of food transport has as much influence on food’s carbon footprint as the distance that food travels.  Ocean freight is the greenest transportation system of all; followed by planes, trains, long haul trucks, and finally the truck that moves your local food to market.  In addition the large amount of food transported at one time by sea, plane, and train, adds to the efficiency.  When you use these methods to move food to metropolitan areas where most people live, the carbon savings are even more apparent.  I saw a claim a few months ago that if you live in the eastern U.S., it is greener to buy olive oil, wine, and many other items from Europe than it is to get them from California.

So it is not as clear cut an issue as just determining the number of miles food is moved after production or harvest.  I think the local food movement has to be upfront about these findings.  It is certainly a fact that the large agri-businesses and food importers will point this out to the public.  In fact, there have been press releases by these businesses doing just that.

There are just so many other important reasons why buying locally is by far the best choice.  We need to educate and inform about those reasons also and not stick only to the carbon footprint argument, an argument that more and more research is showing to be much more complicated than originally believed.

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Will Sig
1 Swubird


The so-called carbon footprint is of less importance to me when it comes to food than quality control in the food production process. I try to buy as much locally produced food as I can because I believe it is all around safer to eat. It’s that simple.

The carbon foot print is under constant scrutiny buy the EPA and a host of state agencies all over the country. And over the last thirty years those agencies have made huge advances. But getting involved in environmental control issues in other countries is just to complicated to produce meaningful, and positive results that are cost effective. Leave that to the governments. I would rather us little folks stick to something we can effect – local environmental issues.

Happy trails.

Swubirds last blog post..THE RODEO KID


2 Bob

Will I buy locally as much as possible, besides being safer to eat,it supports the vendors that spend their money in our shared local economy, win win. Interesting about it being greener to buy wine from Europe then California.

Bobs last blog post..Sikhote-Alin Meteorite


3 roentarre

Currently I am facing the financial downturn.

Following carbon footprints of everything I do is a little hard these days


4 Anna

One day I will grow my own…I really think transporation is a big factor, as you wrote Will, and I really think that food should be grown locally at all times, I am very careful these days, even certain food in supermarkets are made in china, or lets say grown in china – ouch! Anna 🙂

Annas last blog post..Baby Barn Swallow Finally Retired


5 Will

Actually what I am trying to say is that transportation is often not as big a factor as it is made out to be. There are so many reasons to buy local that I fear concentrating on the carbon footprint of food when that footprint can often be shown to not matter much, hurts the local cause.


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