The Short and Long of the Food Transport Story

Food is really getting around. One week before Thanksgiving, a new study by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., finds that food in the United States now travels 25 percent farther to reach the dinner table than it did just 2 decades ago. In the United Kingdom, food travels 50 percent farther than it did.

Modern shipping and preservation now enable supermarkets to sell a wide range of fresh products at low cost any time of year. Consumers in Iowa, for instance, can enjoy tropical kiwis and Atlantic lobsters this winter.

But Brian Halweil, the author of the new report, argues that there are unseen costs to well-traveled food, such as fossil fuel consumption by the trains and trucks that cart it, pollution produced during those trips, and risks of food contamination along the way. Dependence on fresh produce, meat, and other foods from afar also leaves a city vulnerable to terrorists disrupting its supply chain, he suggests.

“It’s almost unpatriotic not to buy as much local food as possible,” he says.

A face behind the food

Halweil, a vegetarian, buys his veggies, fruits, and beans at the local farmers’ markets that move onto corners of busy intersections in the nation’s capital on weekends. He shops at local grocery stores for pasta and rice grown in the United States–preferably in the Northeast. In the winter, a farm in nearby Pennsylvania delivers an overflowing basket of produce to him each week.

A meal of meat, grain, fruit, and vegetables accounts for 4 to 17 times as much petroleum if it comes from afar than if a consumer buys the ingredients locally, Halweil reports. The fuel burned to transport and refrigerate that food contributes to global warming, he says.

Despite the trend toward eating food from farther and farther away, farmers markets such as the ones Halweil shops are growing in popularity, he reports. Their number has jumped from a measly 300 markets in the United States in the mid-1970s to 3,100 today. About 3 million people visit them each week. Halweil suggests that people can develop a healthy seasonal diet based on locally grown foods, even in Maine during the winter.

The fact that food traveling long distances changes hands more often than locally grown food provides more chances for contamination, says Halweil. What’s more, under the current food-distribution pattern cities would run out of fresh food in only 2 to 3 days if many national and international transportation routes were cut off, he adds. “Local food is less vulnerable” to distribution disruptions, he says.

The Worldwatch report isn’t particularly surprising to David Guillet of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. “We now have food that doesn’t have any sense of place,” he says. With “an increasing disconnect” between people and the source of their food, buying local food reassures people about the quality and safety of what they’re eating, says Guillet, who often shops at farmers’ markets himself. Such local markets also typically offer better variety within each type of produce than is available at most supermarkets, he says.

Still, he concedes, “I have to admit that it’s nice to be able to get cheap out-of-season produce.” from the big stores, which typically get distance-shipped food. Also, Guillet says he’s skeptical that the reported increase in visits to farmers’ markets will translate into a large shift toward locally grown food. Although some farmers’ markets sell produce for less than grocery stores, many are more expensive.

“You go to the grocery store and you have a budget,” he says. “We have the cheapest food in the world in this country, and the bottom line for many, many people is, ‘How much does it cost?'”

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