I’ve posted this before in various venues but I thought it was worth a revisit:

So there’s been a lot of talk in the last few years of “food miles”, eating locally and 100 mile diets. Some of the supposed benifits of eating locally is that you become more in tune with the seasons, you support your local community, you eat fresher food and just general all round feel goodness. Now all of these are valid claims and I am not disputing any of them. But the chief claim that the “food mile” movement is making is that eating locally helps the environment through lowering the use of oil. On the face of it, this sounds fairly intuitive but I wasn’t convinced so I decided to dig a bit further and try and answer the question does the choice to eat locally decrease the amount of carbon emitted and it seems like the answer is no.

This graph shows the Ton-Miles per Gallon for Truck, Rail and Barge shipping. Ocean shipping is roughly twice as efficient as inland barges so lets call it 1000 Ton-Miles per Gallon.

Now assume that the typical surburban family drives a 25 Miles Per Gallon vehicle, lives 2.5 miles from their nearest supermarket and buys 20 pounds of groceries in the average shopping trip. So on one round trip, they will travel 5 miles and use 0.2 gallons of petrol to transport 0.01 tons of groceries. A container ship could move that 0.01 tons of groceries 20,000 miles for the same amount of fuel. You could move that 20 pounds of groceries all the way around the world by ship for the same amount of fuel as it takes for you to go to the store and back. If you buy 40 pounds of groceries rather than 20, then it’s a half way around the world. If you live 5 miles instead of 2.5 miles, then it’s twice around the world. If you drive a SUV which gets 12.5MPG and you live 5 miles away, then it’s four time around the world. You can fiddle around with the numbers all you like but the conclusion seems inescapable, where your food comes from is less significant than how you choose to get it.

The math is even more disturbing when you look at exactly what eating locally actually means. For most people, that means buying as much of your food as possible from farmers markets. However, you can’t get everything from farmers markets so it’s likely that you need to still make the same amount of trips to the supermarket to get all of the other stuff you need. Your trips to the farmers markets then become an added fuel expenditure on top of your existing supermarket trips. In addition, farmers markets are usually further away that supermarkets, just by virtue of there are less of them so thats an even bigger fuel cost.

How the goods get from the farm to the market is also an important consideration. Your typical farmers market has many small farmers from within a 100 mile or so radius individually shipping in small amounts of good via cars and small trucks. Again, far less efficient than massive containerized shipping and trucking.

Now, does this on the face of it means that eating locally is crap? Of course not, all of the previous reasons to do with freshness, seasonality and supporting local farmers are still valid. But what is total crap is the idea that somehow eating locally is good for the environment through the decrease in carbon emissions from shipping. While the idea has immediate intuitive appeal, if you peer at the actual numbers, the reality is that modern containerized shipping and distribution has become so efficient that it’s only really the last few miles that are important.

  • Okapifarm

    I had a good chuckle envisioning a container ship parked in the driveway. But thinking about this stuff is good. Truckers get the produce, even long haul, because they deliver on time, unlike the railroads. For some foods — such as lobsters flown around the planet — local is plainly sensible. For durable cargo — canned delicacies or drums of olive oil — the container ship can work. Anyway these gallon per ton-mile calculations are tricky, since every truck, train route, and container ship is different, and their averages might overlap a good deal. http://www.lafn.org/~dave/trans/energy/rail_vs_truckEE.html has a nice start.

  • Okapifarm

    I had a good chuckle envisioning a container ship parked in the driveway. But thinking about this stuff is good. Truckers get the produce, even long haul, because they deliver on time, unlike the railroads. For some foods — such as lobsters flown around the planet — local is plainly sensible. For durable cargo — canned delicacies or drums of olive oil — the container ship can work. Anyway these gallon per ton-mile calculations are tricky, since every truck, train route, and container ship is different, and their averages might overlap a good deal. http://www.lafn.org/~dave/trans/energy/rail_vs_truckEE.html has a nice start.

  • Craig

    “For most people, that means buying as much of your food as possible from farmers markets.”
    Really? For me, when in the Whole Foods (for example) grocery section it is as simple as looking at where the food came from. They label it pretty clearly and emphasize locally sourced produce.

  • Craig

    “For most people, that means buying as much of your food as possible from farmers markets.”
    Really? For me, when in the Whole Foods (for example) grocery section it is as simple as looking at where the food came from. They label it pretty clearly and emphasize locally sourced produce.

  • http://www.bumblebeelabs.com/ Hang

    How far is the nearest Whole Foods from your house? How far is the nearest supermarket? (In my case, the Whole Foods is half as far away, 3 blocks vs 6 blocks but I’m an exception). There’s only 3 Whole Foods in Seattle as far as I recall, If you don’t live close to one of those then driving the 10 miles to get there pretty much eliminates the carbon savings from buying local.

  • http://www.bumblebeelabs.com Hang

    How far is the nearest Whole Foods from your house? How far is the nearest supermarket? (In my case, the Whole Foods is half as far away, 3 blocks vs 6 blocks but I’m an exception). There’s only 3 Whole Foods in Seattle as far as I recall, If you don’t live close to one of those then driving the 10 miles to get there pretty much eliminates the carbon savings from buying local.

  • Peter

    So, the other half of this is being left out. How are the goods that are being shipped half-way around the world getting to that giant container ship? Is it by efficient rail, or subsidized sulfur rich diesel and nasty-ass old trucks.

    The farmer’s market may be rattling old trucks, but if we ge tthe food there, (and it’s close to home) then we save the distance travelled to port and from the sea-ports. but once it is too port, then the fuel costs are comparable.

    It also matters how the food is grown. Apples in new Zealand aren’t irrigated. Apples in Washington are heavily irrigated either by diesel pumps or electric salmon killing/coal burning pumps. There is probably a much smaller carbon footprint on the NZ Apples than the American ones.

    Unless you count Washington orchards in the desert as a carbon sink, then who knows?

  • Peter

    So, the other half of this is being left out. How are the goods that are being shipped half-way around the world getting to that giant container ship? Is it by efficient rail, or subsidized sulfur rich diesel and nasty-ass old trucks.

    The farmer’s market may be rattling old trucks, but if we ge tthe food there, (and it’s close to home) then we save the distance travelled to port and from the sea-ports. but once it is too port, then the fuel costs are comparable.

    It also matters how the food is grown. Apples in new Zealand aren’t irrigated. Apples in Washington are heavily irrigated either by diesel pumps or electric salmon killing/coal burning pumps. There is probably a much smaller carbon footprint on the NZ Apples than the American ones.

    Unless you count Washington orchards in the desert as a carbon sink, then who knows?

  • http://www.bumblebeelabs.com/ Hang

    For the “local” produce in your supermarket, do you know if it’s being shipped by rail or nasty old trucks? The variations should all come out in the wash. Regardless of anything else, the point of this post was that other, unconsidered factors dwarf “food miles” in consideration when comparing the ultimate environmental impact of your diet.

  • http://www.bumblebeelabs.com Hang

    For the “local” produce in your supermarket, do you know if it’s being shipped by rail or nasty old trucks? The variations should all come out in the wash. Regardless of anything else, the point of this post was that other, unconsidered factors dwarf “food miles” in consideration when comparing the ultimate environmental impact of your diet.

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