Buying locally sourced food has become quite popular in the pursuit of improved environmental sustainability. My wife and I shop for most of our groceries at the market near our apartment. The store carries a lot of local produce, and going there makes reducing food miles in our shopping a lot easier.
However, a cultural perception has developed that seems to suggest and foods from far away are bad. But that is not always the case. The truth is rarely so black and white, and sustainability is not just measured in mileage.
For every kind of produce or food product, there are a number of variables that effect how many resources and how much carbon is emitted to get it from farm to market. Just because something came from far away doesn’t necessarily make it inherently much worse than something closer.
If, for example, a fruit can be shipped by crate in ships or along rail lines, tremendous quantities can be transported across very far distances with relatively few emissions. How far a farm’s input traveled—input being the supplies to make the food—also significantly affect the total carbon impact. For example, the food miles for delivering cattle feed to a farm may have more impact than how far the beef travels to the market.
The rail industry likes to boast that modern diesel electric trains can transport 1 ton of cargo 400 miles on 1 gallon of fuel, making it considerably more efficient than trucking. In fact, as I am beginning to write this column, traveling by Amtrak through central California, I’m staring out the window at miles of farmland connected by rail lines. Some of these crops will be bound for the Los Angeles region, hundreds of miles away, and they will get there quickly and efficiently thanks to the rails.
The irony is that some people will drive far out of their way for the most local food, which actually significantly increases the C02 of their food purchasing. As small as the Santa Monica Co-Op is, there are people who drive to it from all over the region, fighting for the limited parking spaces.
According to Brighter Planet, a company that calculates carbon emissions and recommends mitigation strategies, 71 percent of the carbon emissions from food miles are for personal transportation from market to home, 22 percent are from input delivery supplying the farm (like cattle feed), and only 7 percent are from final delivery from farm to market. When food travels home in the back of a car, it is often that trip that is the most wasteful of energy, even if it is a much shorter distance than the food’s other travels.
If we really want to tackle the carbon impact of food miles, we need to focus more on how the food gets home than how it got to the store. There are a lot of ways we can address this, individually and collectively. For someone used to driving, the easiest thing that can be done is to be smart about planning grocery trips to reduce frequency of trips. Try to get the bulk of the heaviest items you’ll need at once, and when you inevitably realize you forgot something, walk, bike or take the bus to pick up those other miscellaneous items.
When you’re close enough to a market, it’s also not that difficult to pick up all your groceries without having to jump in a car. Between farmers markets on three different days in four locations, multiple locations, a , the Co-Opportunity, , , many other smaller markets and numerous local restaurants, no one in Santa Monica is living very far from access to good food. Sadly, in other places, there are “food deserts,” where people do not live close to fresh food. But we are quite fortunate to have an abundance of options.
A bike is a great way to get around, but with the right gear and bags, a bike can carry a lot of cargo as well. As long as the terrain is mostly flat or gradual in inclines, the extra weight is really pretty negligible. A personal grocery cart can also make carrying heavy loads of food on foot much more manageable than trying to carry all of your bags. Food-delivery services like Yummy.com are also more efficient than personal car trips to buy food, because they can plan routes that serve multiple households with fewer trips.
The bike is my usual tool of choice for grocery shopping, though I walk more often now that I live closer to the Co-Op. One of the simplest ways to add a lot of carrying capacity to a bike is to install a rear rack and get a pair of fold-up shopping panniers, into which you can easily drop shopping bags. A backpack can work too. There are a few shops in town that sell racks and bags, like , , and . If you’re really interested in carrying things by bike regularly, I highly recommend going with a rack and panniers.
As a city, the best things we can do is support zoning, which allows more smaller markets to be near residents, and makes it easier and safer to get around without a car. Trips by alternative modes like the bike valet, which supports the Sunday’s farmer market, should be encouraged. Grocery stores need more permanent bike parking and should meet better quality standards in design and placement.
I’m up in Portland, Ore., at the moment, and its bike parking puts us and everyone else to shame. Despite the abysmal weather, the bike parking in Portland is also very well-utilized as well.
There are a number of benefits to locally sourcing food, such as supporting local farmers, and the produce is often fresher, with better flavor and quality, to name a few things. However, if you think it will significantly reduce your carbon footprint by being a "locavore," the truth is it won’t accomplish nearly as much as reducing personal car trips to buy groceries or going out to eat.
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