Thursday, July 9, 2009

The numbers on fuel usage, CO2 emissions, and food miles

I have grown up on a farm and have been selling at farmers markets since I was 8, so it is only natural for me to try to eat locally. I can get pretty frustrated when I notice people that are not thinking twice about where their food comes from. I can think of an almost endless list of reasons to eat locally, but one reason that has gotten a lot of press is the number 1,500. Our produce travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to consumer.

I have heard this number tossed around quite a bit, and have recently wondered where that number came from. Maybe it is the science major in me that needs studies and numbers, but I felt the need to find out where that number came from. I started searching on the Internet, and found a study conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture entitled “Food, Fuel, and Freeways”. This study is an Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and CO2 emissions carried out in 2001.

First, the center calculated how many miles produce traveled to reach Chicago using data from the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service in 1998. They found that produce traveled an average of 1,518 miles to Chicago. The Capital Area Food Bank also found that produce traveled and average of 1, 685 miles to Jessup, Maryland.

Next, the center calculated the number of miles food traveled from three local, Iowa, food systems where farmers were selling to restaurants, hospitals, and conference centers. They discovered that the food in these systems traveled an average of 44.6 miles instead of the 1, 546 miles it would have traveled via the conventional system. When they only regarded produce the numbers were 37.9 miles vs. 1, 638 miles.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture also
calculated fuel use and CO2 emissions to transport 10% of the Iowa estimated consumption of 28 fresh produce items for three different food systems. The conventional system represented a retail/wholesale supply system where domestic sources supply Iowa with produce using semi trailer trucks. The Iowa based-regional system was a hypothetical scenario based on existing Iowa based distribution infrastructure. In this scenario, a cooperative of small and mid-sized farms would supply Iowa retailers/wholesalers using semi trailers and mid size trucks. The local system represented farmers who sell directly to consumers through CSAs, farmers markets, restaurants, hospitals, and conference centers using trucks with light gasoline usage.

The conventional system used 4 to 17 more fuel than the Iowa based regional system or the local system. The conventional system also released 5 to 17 times more CO2 from the burning of fuel than Iowa based regional systems or local systems. The range in these numbers is dependent on the type of truck and system used to transport the produce.

Those are some numbers to think about! I hope this gives you one more reason to consider buying locally grown/raised food or even grow your own!

By the way, the number 1,500 comes from an article written by John Hendrickson in 1996, using data from 1980. His summary is quite informative and raises even more issues about energy usage in the U.S. food system, including ways to conserve energy.


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