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The Food Less Traveled
Sarah Rich, 5 Jun 06

apple.jpg When I tuned into NPR in Sunday, the weekend quiz show was broadcasting from Iowa. The host asked listeners to call in with an answer to the question: "How much money would go back into the Iowa economy if all Iowans ate their daily recommended allowance of fresh fruits and vegetables from local sources?" The answer? Approximately $300 million. That'd be an enormous economic boost for the state, simply for choosing local produce, with the obvious personal payoff being fresher (and thus presumably tastier) food.

This stat added fuel (so to speak) to another study recently released from The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture based at Iowa State University. The center has done a recalculation on a 2002 study into the amount of fuel required to transport fresh produce to market. In this case, the market was designated as Des Moines, Iowa. The results are presented as a calculation of the amount of kilocalories required to transport a pound of produce, scaled to the miles traveled (with fuel-energy values of different types of transport taken into account). This becomes a DIY calculation table for each type of produce listed. The formulas require a little bit of work to arrive at a single number, but here are some easily digested facts: A Washington apple travels 1,722 miles by commercial diesel truck from the tree to the market in Des Moines. A Hawaiian pineapple travels 1,683 miles by airplane and truck. And a bunch of Chilean grapes? 5,585 miles by ship and truck. (I do wonder whether the weight includes added ounces of pesticide coating on the grapes, or food-grade shellac on the apples.)

Because these new formulas for calculating fuel requirements account for a number of factors that were left out of the 2002 report, the fuel amounts here are actually lower than those projected several years ago. Nevertheless, it's clear that we're spending vast amounts of a limited resource to move food that could potentially be sourced much closer to home. Sure, an Iowan wouldn't be able to enjoy a mango or a pineapple, but there's no reason to bring an out-of-state apple to a state that grows their own just fine. It's interesting that certain varieties of produce gain a reputation for being better if they come from a certain place. Again, using the Washington apple as an example - Northwestern apples may be divine, but if you live in Iowa, why would an apple that was picked days or weeks ago, tossed around in a packing plant, hauled on a truck and retumbled through its delivery to the store seem more appealing than one picked yesterday in the next county over?

This is all old news to those familiar with well-known efforts like the 100 mile diet, which began with two people setting out to eat only local food for a year, and spawned a whole movement of resolute local foodies who wanted to find out how much life would change if they passed up Manila mangoes and Sumatran coffee. The Slow Food Movement has also been instrumental here, of course, by not only advocating local food but showing people how to make exquisite meals using only regional ingredients.

This is all just another example of the tight interconnections of the systems that govern our lives. Local food is an issue of health and nutrition, sure; but it's also an issue of economics, air quality, natural resources, and climate change. You can't extract any piece of the planetary puzzle, and on the bright side, by eating local produce you can be sure you are supporting your community, reducing oil dependence, and getting the most delicious apples imaginable.

Thanks, David!

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Why not keep the variety but make the long-distance travelled items cost more by having a realistic carbon tax on the delivery fuel?

Posted by: JN2 on 5 Jun 06

"Sure, an Iowan wouldn't be able to enjoy a mango or a pineapple..."

and why not? The Rocky Mountain Institute grows bananas at what, 7,000 feet? Technological innovations in agriculture have a place in the 'bright green' future. Greenhouses, hothouses, and the deliberate introduction of more suitable - though exotic - species, are all legitimate ways to produce local food beyond the 'normal' local capacity and still eliminate the fuel-slurping distances food now travels.
Being a foodie myself, I am all for in-season, regional cuisine. But a locally grown mango in Iowa could be regional cuisine too - in its own weird way.
After all, food has been traveling the globe for thousands of years - to the betterment of all regions.

Posted by: justus on 5 Jun 06

You're kidding right??

Did the host of the show talk about how much it would benefit Iowa if other states only bought local food as well? I mean we can grow corn here in California, why buy it from Iowa?

I agree with JN2 .. price the delivery fuel realistically, but otherwise please do some reading of Ricardo.

Posted by: Joe Deely on 5 Jun 06

like other commenters, I purchased as much food as I can locally, and as much as I can afford a local organic farm. However, I don't think it is practical to grow exotic fruits such as avocados, oranges, pineapples etc. in New England. As a person who will consume as many as 30 oranges in a week, I do enjoy the importation of nonlocal fruit.

without widespread long-distance transportation, fruit would be limited to whatever apples can be stored over the winter. Which means by January, I think the only apples left would be Baldwin which are pretty gross. The only source of vitamin C would be sauerkraut and vitamin C tablets. Scurvy would show its face again.

surprisingly, we would be better off with leafy green vegetables (which still taste like grass no matter how much salad dressing I put on them) and possibly tomatoes because there has been some nice advances with hydroponics in recycled cargo containers.

I suspect we would see greater consumption of carbohydrates, stews, and treats such as pies because you can use heavily bruised or damaged fruits and vegetables in these dishes without affecting the nutrition or taste.

so yeah, changing the transportation profile for food means that available food would change radically and not necessarily for the better. for example, if you are hunting all over for food to different farms, stores etc., your time wasted footprint as well as your carbon footprint spent on basic life maintenance will go way up. Would you be willing to give up most of a weekend every week hunting for food? how about a single day out of every week?

Posted by: Eric S. Johansson on 5 Jun 06

Ricardo wouldn’t be surprised to find that Iowa’s comparative advantage leads it to import 80% of its food. (Yup, Iowa doesn’t feed itself.) A few decades ago a typical farmer there grew over a dozen crops. Now he’s down to corn and soybeans. However weird this sounds, it is economically rational for farmers to export corn and soybeans to industrial processors and feedlots (who buy it under the cost of production) and import the processed products. But it is only rational in an economy constructed through production subsidies and ignored externalities. Economies don’t just happen. They’re made.

To anyone who cares about clean water, farmers’ livelihoods, animal welfare, and sustainability in general our agricultural system is perversely irrational. For all of Ricardo’s logic, agriculture is connected to so many other things that thinking of it just in terms of commodity production is dangerously narrow-minded. Sarah is right on talking about the tight interconnections between health, economics, air quality, and so on. I’m not sure that internalizing externalities will fix it—we’re bound to miss some or get them wrong. And I’m sure that a carbon tax alone won’t cut it.

I also have to plug Michael Pollan’s new book An Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s a *fantastic* walk down the food chain.

Posted by: Chad Monfreda on 5 Jun 06


I agree with your almost all your points...issues with production subsidies, animal welfare, water problems etc... Our food production system is definitely a mess.

I like to buy at the local farmer's market and I hate the taste of store-bought tomatoes... there is nothing like a home-grown tomato.

However, I think the suggestion that we should buy food, just because it is local is a dangerous and narrow-minded one... to use your words.

It sounds like anti-trade rhetoric to me and giving up the benefits that we have gained by trading food from one region to another would be just plain stupid.

Posted by: Joe Deely on 5 Jun 06

'giving up' the benefits of trading food isn't possible in the first place, so it's a moot point. We could no more 'prevent' the trade of food than the trade of anything else.
But you undercut your own point by acknowledging how screwed up the global food system is; we really are better off eating locally produced food. That's why I think this 'local v. exotic' idea is a false choice.
If *most* food is consumed where it is produced, we have a healthier system, which could include non-regional crops grown through technological means (you can grow oranges in New England, it's just harder - is it more energy intensive than trucking them from Florida or Texas? No).
*Some* food would still be traded globally, because that's a good thing for diversity and for production economies, especially in the short term.

Let Californians grow their own corn, so Iowan farmers can grow their own tomatoes. Certainly let African farmers sell to their neighbors, instead of trying to compete with American wheat companies in the global wheat market.
Who loses in this arrangement? Big ag. corporations. Oh well.

Posted by: justus on 6 Jun 06

Thanks for these comments, all. I have to agree with Justus that "'giving up' the benefits of trading food isn't possible in the first place, so it's a moot point." I don't think that it was necessarily the aim of NPR's broadcast to say that all tradelines should be cut off and we ought to start foraging for food in the yards and forests around our homes (although there have been some great renegade projects trying to reconnect people with their wild food sources ). Neither was it my point to suggest that idea, though I do think it's important to recognize what percentage of the food you enjoy does come from vast distances.

*But* there's a huge middle ground here. So many people are SO disconnected from the source of their food, it's as though they thought it all grew inside the grocery. And as Chad pointed out, there are many levels to understand; it's not just about realizing your mango grew in the Philippines, but about what happened from the tree to your hand (I know this is a conversation we've all had a million times).

I'm not totally comfortable with the idea of growing bananas in Aspen. Sure, it's a cool point to make, but it's not like one successful tree in Aspen will replace the massive banana plantations that currently have a glut of problems between chemical use and labor practices (anyone seen "Life and Debt"?) The amount of energy and resources required to grow subtropical or mediterranean fruit trees in arid and high-altitude climates trumps the concept of "local."

Ultimately, I think we all agree that what's important is knowing where your food comes from and prioritizing procuring _what you can_ locally, while giving yourself the leeway to get other things you need from longer distances. Supporting a local food economy and promoting access to fresh (and organic) food for those who otherwise would buy primarily processed food is vital, not only economically but in terms of human health (obesity, diabetes, cancer).

Posted by: Sarah on 6 Jun 06


Good luck on that orange venture in New England... I'm guessing that you will have investors begging to get in on that deal.

I am busy starting up a maple syrup business here in Silicon Valley. I'm planting a maple forest. It will be right next to my 1000 acres of corn...and my 1000 acres of wheat. I'm finding that it doesn't rain that much out here so I am irrigating my fields. Oh well, those people in San Francisco drink too much water anyway.

I'm also looking into getting venture capital for my new farm machinery company, which will be supplying all of the other new corn/wheat farms in California. I mean, why ship these new tractors from Peoria, Illinois when we can build them here locally? Pretty obvious, eh?

We are planning on getting the design engineers from the local semiconductor equipment companies. There are plenty of engineers available now because Iowa decided to purchase local semiconductors as well, so California chip companies have decided to move some operations there.

Iowa has really changed... many of those corn fields that used to supply California, Texas and Florida have turned into steel plants. Why steel you say? They need the steel to make the automobiles. Why ship autos from Detroit and have all that added energy use when you can just make them locally?

Posted by: Joe Deely on 6 Jun 06

Joe, my interest in having a prolonged debate with you on this matter is pretty much nil, but I do want to respond to your comment, because I think we agree more than you imply.
Thanks, by the way, for engaging me thoughtfully, not with patronizing, wise-ass comments.

First of all, the oranges... it was an *example.* I just said it was possible, I never said it was practical under current economic conditions.

Second, and more importantly, we are thinking about this in different ways. Your language says it all. You are in the Silicon Valley region, yes? Well it shows. I am talking about a true local agriculture, meaning non-industrialized.
I am not interested in 'investors.'
You are not farming syrup, you are 'starting a business.' (It will be hard BTW; artificially warming land is simple, you only need a piece of plastic. Artificially cooling it is much harder.)
I am not interested in your 2000 acres of crops, which will require massive inputs.
I am not interested in overproducing wheat and dumping it on foreign wheat markets.
Finally, don't conflate the food industry with other industries, like equipment manufacturing. Part of what makes the food system so problematic is that it's *food.* We put it in our bodies. See Jon's post on corn for an example.

You're undeniably right - we're not going back to all-local crafts production of all goods. I never said as much. Locally grown food is better for people and the earth than industrial agriculture that is shipped 1000s of miles. And it's possible to grow foods beyond their natural range with relatively low-input technologies, *as long as you're not growing for a global commodity market.*

Let me know what part of that seems so childish to you that you couldn't respond to it gracefully.

Posted by: justus on 6 Jun 06

Play nice. Joe, as I said in my email to you, there are ways to maintain a heated debate without burning the other participants. Aggression doesn't really serve the dialogue here, and I think this is a worthwhile discussion.

Posted by: Sarah on 6 Jun 06

Justus, One last portion of the debate from my end.

First you are right, I didn't respond gracefully.

You are probably also right in that we agree on things more than I implied by my smartass comments.

I do think we should eat locally grown food and I do when I can. However, it does not make economic or environmental sense for corn to be grown in California. It also doesn't make sense for us to grow rice here, but because of massive water subsidies for farmers we do.

I think we start disagreeing when you talk about "industrial agriculture" and a "true local agriculture, meaning non-industrialized." Does that mean you wouldn't use farm equipment? You also imply farming without the need of investors... does that mean you wouldn't need any loans? I have no problems with agriculture being "a business".

Finally, I am not sure where you stand on trade. I am a big believer in trade and I think that it benefits the world immensely.

So my comments have mostly been against the anti-trade sentiment I percieved in the article and in comments. The Iowa State study mentioned in Sarah's article is a great example of blatant trade protectionism. Iowa wants to be able to sell its corn to other states and it wants Iowans to buy local... thereby "adding $300 million to the local economy".

Here's a direct quote from the news release for the study...
Swenson said the model is based on a common economic concept of import substitution.

"By substituting in-state production for out-of-state purchases, money that otherwise would have left the state remains in the state," he said. "Keeping money in the state is desirable because money that leaves the state rarely returns. Money that remains in the state has a multiplier effect on the whole economy."

Swenson and Pirog said the scenarios generated in the report are hypothetical, and would require huge shifts in the infrastructure of Iowa’s fruit and vegetable industry, as well as gains in the Iowa market share taken from states such as California.

Having policies like this makes us all poorer and less healthy.

Posted by: Joe Deely on 7 Jun 06

And one last from me...

I agree that subsidies distort markets, and that growing anything with massive inputs of water and chemicals doesn't make sense.
That's actually half of what I mean by industrialized agriculture. I don't mean non-mechanized, nor do I mean 'without technology.' (In fact, the opposite. I think we are due for a step forward in agricultural technologies.)
I mean high-input monocultural commodity production.

The other half is scale. I don't think that a 4,000-acre organic cotton field is a good model of sustainable agriculture. So make that *massive* high-input monocultural commodity agriculture. That's so unwieldy; I just use 'industrialized agriculture' instead, but obviously that's clumsy, and leads to confusion.

I too am strongly pro-trade. But I do not think that our current system of trade, where we are enriched and others are entrapped, is a good one. I am definitely an advocate of strong, diverse local economies, where money is recirculated longer. I think import replacement is good economic policy - Detroit should have done it.

As for our disagreement: I do have a problem with agriculture as a business. It would be nice, frankly, to do away with the loans; most farmers operate under crushing debt loads - helping to encourage them to sell out when developers come calling (but that's going far afield).
My problem is that I see no reason why food should be asked to compete with other consumer products on the open market. Food is fundementally different from other goods because we need food to be alive. This causes a dynamic where food is kept artificially cheap - which is good, because everyone needs to eat - but is still supposed to somehow support itself. Which brings us back to subsidy... I just think the whole system is flawed.

One part of the solution is for food to always be as local as possible (here we agree). A local system does not imply total insularity - protectionism - it implies that production and consumption are more proximate. The benefit of that is it bypasses the corporations and brings producer and consumer into a direct relationship, which benefits them both (sorry - you know all that). It also makes small-scale organic operations feasible. Yes, it requires rethinking our agricultural economics, and that will not happen easily; it also requires innovation, which as you know is the true lifeblood of the economy. Not all of those innovations need to be technological; what were the indigenous peoples of Southern California eating when the Spanish arrived? Corn.

Posted by: justus on 7 Jun 06



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