Eat Locally, Ease Climate Change Globally

Sunday, March 9, 2008

My farm is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in southwestern Virginia. Like many others who have recently made the transition from tobacco to organic farming, we sell our produce through local and regional channels, including the farmers market in the nearby town of Abingdon, population 8,000.

Of late, a number of commentators have disparaged local food economies, based on two claims: First, that shipping food long distances in fully loaded tractor-trailers is more efficient than local transactions; and, second, that consumers travel much further to buy local foods, creating more, not less carbon emissions. They're wrong.

A full tractor-trailer hauls about 32,000 pounds of produce. On average, according to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, this food travels about 1,750 miles from farm to market, in trucks that get about 5.5 miles per gallon. That's 320 gallons of fuel to transport 32,000 pounds, or about a gallon of fuel for every 100 pounds of food.

My farm is an eight-mile round trip from the Abingdon farmers market. Our '94 Toyota pickup gets 15 miles to the gallon, fully loaded, so my trip to and from the market uses just over a half gallon of gas. We take and sell an average of 1,600 pounds of fresh produce every Saturday morning. This works out to 3,200 pounds of food for every gallon of fuel expended. That's 32 times more efficient.

Of course, not every farmer lives four miles from his or her market. But our local experience, along with studies carried out in Austin and Toronto, indicate that most farmers stay within a 50-mile radius. Assuming they carry about 1,000 pounds -- a third less than we do -- the average local food transaction delivers 500 pounds of food per gallon of fuel, five times more efficient than conventional transport.

So the argument that shipping food in tractor-trailers is more efficient than local food transactions doesn't hold up. But are consumers traveling so much farther to get to farmers markets that their additional fuel use offsets any efficiency gains? Though the data are a bit sketchy, two points stand out. First, in spite of the dramatic growth of Wal-Mart and other "one-stop shopping" outlets, our shopping miles are steadily increasing. As author Stacy Mitchell has pointed out, we Americans increased our travel -- just for shopping -- by over 90 billion miles from 1990 to 2001. That's billion with a "B." It's safe to say that most of those new miles were not spent seeking out local food.

Second, several studies indicate that consumers are not willing to travel more than six to eight miles or 15 to 20 minutes by car to shop at a local market, perhaps slightly more than what people will travel to reach the big-box store. And with farmers markets proliferating across the country, from 1,750 in 1995 to nearly 4,500 now, they're getting closer to consumers and farmers every year.

One last thing: So far as I know, no food ever arrives at a farmers market by airplane. Yet air freight, which generates 10 to 30 times as much carbon per mile as trucking, is becoming a major part of the global food system.

When my wife and I get up at 5 on Saturday morning to start packing our truck, a cup of strong coffee and a glass of orange juice make it a little easier. So we're not dogmatic about local foods. But we also know, first hand, that locally produced foods are increasingly abundant, convenient and rewarding. The critics notwithstanding, buying local food is a sensible way to eat well, save fuel and reduce your carbon footprint.

-- Anthony Flaccavento

Abingdon, Va.

The writer is a food and society policy fellow and director of Appalachian Sustainable Development.

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