Global Warming on Your Plate: It's more than "food miles" -- it's "food energy"

It’s more than
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KEY POINTS: *Buying local is very important, primarily for reinforcing the local economy. *Reducing food miles does not reduce energy use as much as changing food production and consumption in two other ways: organic/sustainable methods and eating less meat and dairy. *The twin problems of peak fuels and global warming are increasingly affecting everyone, and burning less fossil fuel is paramount for sustainability.

Buy local campaigns are getting a lot of attention. By now, most co-op shoppers have been told that produce typically travels 1,500 miles to get to the store shelf, and that local foods are better for many reasons. The argument for local economies, summarized below, is strong and growing in importance.

“Food miles” is a good lead-in for talking about food sources and food choices. But campaigns based on “food miles” may be spreading misconceptions about energy consumption and sustainable production. The issue matters because global warming and sustainability matter—and because we want the co-op’s claims and education to be well-founded.

Distance to the producer does not help much in describing the overall energy costs of food. Transportation is a minor part of those costs, whether the food is from 50 miles or 500 miles away. Assuming that “local” equates to lower energy use is simplistic when it does not address equally important food choices such as organic/sustainable and the proportion of meat and dairy.

Why local matters

Of course, strong advantages accrue to locally produced food—depending on how “local” is defined. Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute, summarized it well in his June 24 posting:

Local is really important as a deep investment into your local economy and developing a relationship with the person who produces your food. Not only do local businesses generate more local income, jobs, and tax receipts, but they also tend to utilize advertising, banks, and services in the local community. In fact, a dollar spent at a local business turns over seven times in that community, while the same dollar spent at a box store or chain only turns over 2.5 times.

Buying locally builds a healthy community on many levels. (For case studies on the economic, social, and environmental impacts of buying local, visit the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, Not only can you support the economic health of your community and offer security to your hardworking neighbors, but you can eliminate the uncertainties of agribusiness by talking to your farmer and seeing firsthand how your food is produced. It is also helpful in being able to purchase food that is often fresher. [And] buying local can create local food security, which may become more and more important in the near future.

Surely these are arguments that we want co-op owners and shoppers to hear. Buying locally fits well with the practices and mission of food cooperatives.

However, the energy used in food production and consumption is another matter. The twin global issues of greenhouse gases and peak oil constitute a closely related discussion. We all need to invest in our local economies—but meanwhile, the global environment needs to be rescued, too. What does it mean to “think ­globally, act locally”?

Earth household

It’s difficult to overstate the threats of global warming and resource depletion. Years after earlier warnings, international and national reports now state in guarded language that without radical changes in global resource use, our societies are headed toward unprecedented disaster and breakdown due to peak fuels and climate chaos. Food systems and habits have a big impact, and less intensive alternatives exist.

It is clear that reducing global warming gases and fossil fuel use will require dramatic changes in the food system, agricultural policy, and household behavior. The depth of those necessary food system changes—requiring not just greater efficiency but curtailment of consumption—may explain much of the resistance and denial that surround the topic. And of course there are competing urgent public policy questions. But public health, to take one such essential issue, also will depend on a better food system. The H1N1 virus is just the latest of serious health threats that spread from factory farm operations—although we are admonished not to call it “swine flu.”

Note the food security piece among the advantages summarized by Rodale’s LaSalle: “Buying local can create local food security, which may become more and more important in the near future.” Yet, despite increasing incidents of contamination and product recalls, few people seem to recognize that their food supply is fragile and subject to interruption—unless they are already hungry.

Nor do many people expect a widespread reduction of energy consumption, voluntary or involuntary. Yet that is what lies ahead. It is true that improved technology and greater efficiency are available directions. But increased efficiency in resource use often actually leads to greater use, and therefore no conservation (known as Jevons’ paradox).

We are extremely reliant on petroleum and natural gas in forms that have no ready substitute. Reducing demand is essential, contrary to the common but foolish faith that technical improvements will allow continuation of present practices in the U.S.—where 5 percent of the world’s population consumes 25 percent of its energy and emits 25 percent of its global warming gases.

Moderate curtailment through available and obvious changes could provide major and immediate reductions in energy use. It also could provide an enormous number of jobs for home insulation, garden preparation, and the like. Instead, and tragically, the climate change measures now being debated in the U.S. and through the administration’s international approach are largely forms of denial and corporate protection, abandoning the goals of the Kyoto accord and requiring few immediate changes. While it appears U.S. legislation may offer a breakthrough in recognizing the huge potential of agriculture for carbon sequestration, the general direction should be seen for the disaster that it is. Barring some dramatic reversal at the next Copenhagen international sessions in December, it is a betrayal of our future, a direction that condemns our global family to a living hell.

Public policy again lags well behind public need. All of us, citizens and businesses, are going to face a learning curve and will have to adapt our behavior in light of issues around greenhouse gases and peak fuels. This is where examples and educational efforts can make a noticeable difference. But it won’t be an easy sell or just a seasonal campaign. Fossil fuel dependence is pervasive as well as under-recognized. Campaigns for conservation and curtailment will need truly public-minded and consumer-driven organizations—such as cooperatives, one can hope, to lead them.

(For current policy recommendations, see “Climate Change and Sustainable Agriculture,” from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: For a global overview, see “Agriculture and Food in Crisis,” by Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar in the July–August Monthly Review:

Fossil fuel food

If we are to adequately address global issues, we should give sustainable production methods and eating lower on the food chain as much emphasis as where food is sourced.

Conventional food requires large energy expenditures for fertilizer and fuel in farm operations, plus processing and packaging, transportation and distribution, retailing, and home storage and preparation. Most of the energy embedded in food is from fossil fuels. Even so-called alternative energy has considerable fossil fuel costs (especially nuclear power): for fuels burned in its extraction, manufacture and transmission; for infrastructure investment and maintenance using fossil fuels, and more. Since burning any fuel produces carbon dioxide and other gases, the metric becomes: how much is emitted in greenhouse gases?

We know that the U.S. is overeating and overheating. Food energy analysis summarizes how agriculture contributes as much as one-fourth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Looking at the big picture helps us see that it is a systemic problem, one that is interdependent with public policy. At the same time, comprehensive measurement of food system energy use covers a broad range of production and distribution factors and household practices. These options present critical opportunities for co-ops and their member households to exercise choices that influence the food system.

As stated by Goldie Caughlan, nutrition education manager for PCC Natural Markets, in her column, “Knowledge Is Power: We hold the key to sustainable food” (July 2009 Sound Consumer):

Our purchasing decisions directly help influence the manufacturer’s decision to secure organic products for the future. We can drive the conversion of many thousands of acres of cropland in this country away from genetic engineering by planting USDA-certified organic soy and other organic crops. Time is crucial and stakes are high. Together, we can achieve robust, healthy farming communities with thriving local economies all across this continent. It’s the only reliable road to real food security!

What kind of food?

Public policy frames the food system, and our efforts must include change in that direction, but comparisons among actual household behaviors help make the issues real. They are a beginning point for educating ourselves about how we can improve our impact on the appalling resource consumption in the U.S. food system, where water tables are being depleted and 10 calories are burned for every calorie of food produced.

How to change that food/energy ratio? Reducing the energy used in a household’s food supply depends not so much on where the food is produced but how it is produced, whether the household grows any of its own food, and whether it restricts consumption of meat and dairy. A 2008 study by Christopher Weber and H. Scott Mathews in Environmental Science & Technology concluded: “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG [greenhouse gases] reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

Similar questions about local food are raised by Sarah DeWeerdt in the May–June edition of Worldwatch ( ), after first reviewing the background to food miles:

In the United States, the most frequently cited statistic is that food travels 1,500 miles on average from farm to consumer. That figure comes from work led by Rich Pirog, the associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University… In 2001, in some of the country’s first food-miles research, Pirog and a group of researchers analyzed the transport of 28 fruits and vegetables to Iowa markets via local, regional, and conventional food distribution systems. The team calculated that produce in the conventional system—a national network using semi-trailer trucks to haul food to large grocery stores—traveled an average of 1,518 miles (about 2,400 kilometers). By contrast, locally sourced food traveled an average of just 44.6 miles (72 kilometers) to Iowa markets.

…The admonition to “eat local” just seems like common sense. And indeed, at the most basic level, fewer transport miles do mean fewer emissions. Pirog’s team found that the conventional food distribution system used four to 17 times more fuel and emitted five to 17 times more CO2 than the local and regional (the latter of which roughly meant Iowa-wide) systems.

Note that the figures from the Iowa study refer only to distribution energy. DeWeerdt’s mention of carbon dioxide emissions points to where “food miles” is a weak conceptual tool. What matters most, she argues, is the kind of food:

The other clear result that emerges from these analyses is that what you eat matters at least as much as how far it travels, and agriculture’s overwhelming “hotspots” are red meat and dairy production. In part that’s due to the inefficiency of eating higher up on the food chain—it takes more energy, and generates more emissions, to grow grain, feed it to cows, and produce meat or dairy products for human consumption, than to feed grain to humans directly. But a large portion of emissions associated with meat and dairy production take the form of methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases that are respectively 23 and 296 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Methane is produced by ruminant animals (cows, goats, sheep, and the like) as a byproduct of digestion, and is also released by the breakdown of all types of animal manure. Nitrous oxide also comes from the breakdown of manure (as well as the production and breakdown of fertilizers).

Food miles does not equal food energy
Consequently, an emphasis on “food miles,” if it bypasses factors involving diet and eating high on the food chain, may simply be wrong in suggesting that local sources will significantly reduce the energy used in household food choices. Analysis of total energy use in the food system suggests that agricultural methods account for most energy costs, and that transportation takes relatively little, while home storage and preparation takes more. DeWeert, Lester Brown and others analyzing energy use in the food system agree that production (including fertilizer) is the number-one component, accounting for as much as half of greenhouse gas emissions. But these authors also suggest that transportation’s contribution is in the range of 5–15 percent of the energy used to get food to the table, while home storage and preparation, often overlooked, uses 15–20 percent of the total.

Beyond reducing food miles, if we want to moderate food energy use, it is clear that organic and sustainable production practices are superior, including diverse perennial and pasture-based methods. Such production has these advantages:

  • Organic and pasture-based farming typically use less fertilizer and other forms of fossil fuel and, consequently, generates less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
  • Organic methods absorb more carbon in the soil though practices such as cover crops and composting. Recent studies by Rodale Institute and others indicate that conversion to organic production could sequester a significant part of worldwide carbon emissions.
  • Organic farming is superior to conventional production in resource conservation and soil building, while maintaining productivity that is comparable to conventional methods.

All these advantages offer important points of public education about lower food energy and organic and low-input farming as responses to global issues. Major factors determining the impact of household food practices reflect choices that can dramatically vary. These essential considerations range from a diet high on the food chain to one not as high, food that is raised conventionally vs. organic and pasture-based, the wasteful use of household energy vs. the prudent, as well as long-distance sourcing vs. local.

Bringing it all back home
What can our businesses, communities and households do to power down? A response embodying both curtailment as well as innovation is required to remake a food system that global resources can support.

Lester Brown, whose Plan B, 3.0 (available at comprehensively reviews the global food crisis, offers a perspective of great urgency, yet attempts to strike an optimistic view:

Despite local advances, the overall loss of momentum in expanding food production is unmistakable. It will force us to think more seriously about stabilizing population, moving down the food chain, and using the existing harvest more productively. Achieving an acceptable worldwide balance between food and people may now depend on stabilizing population as soon as possible, reducing the unhealthily high consumption of animal products among the affluent, and restricting the conversion of food crops to automotive fuels. It also calls for a concerted effort to raise water use productivity, similar to the gains achieved for land use, and to stabilize climate to avoid crop-withering temperatures and more frequent droughts. These efforts combined can help put us on the path to ensuring enough food for all.

Co-ops and their owners can bring global food issues into the realm of daily practice: how to think globally and act locally. Are you ready to challenge owners and customers to look deeper than “food miles” to curtail resource-intensive consumption?

We need to ask difficult questions. Local, national, and global food systems are extremely challenged, following overuse of finite natural resources. Survival is at stake, for many at present and for all in the future. Putting it another way, our food practices either build sustainability or they rob others of that option.

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