Food Miles: How far does your food travel? Ethical consumers ask the question: Where does my food come from? That includes place of origin and consequently the distance traveled. Here is information on long-distance food transportation and reasons to buy food locally instead.
How far does food travel?
Many foods consumed in the United States travel at least 1,500 miles or more to get from their place of origin to the grocery to your home! Believe it or not, the typical American meal, on average, includes ingredients from at least 5 foreign countries! (NRDC). Quite a contrast from only a few generations ago when most of our great-grandparents grew their own food at home and had no choice but to eat seasonally and locally.
Where does most food come from?
China, India, the USA and Brazil are the world’s top producers of food. And despite being a top food producer, the USA still imports a lot of food from Mexico.
Naturally, there is no set answer to where food comes from -it depends on each and every food, producer, trade agreements and food imports and exports! For instance, we cannot say all potatoes come from Idaho and all apples come from Washington. Nowadays, it’s likely your local supermarket sells foods from dozens of overseas countries.
Fruits and vegetables may come with a sticker attached that tells you the country of origin. It often reads “Product of Peru” or “Food Origin Mexico”. However, this is not always the case. And for processed foods that include numerous ingredients? Food manufacturers do not list origins of each ingredient so you won’t ever know for sure! Food packaging often only lists the country of food packaging, processing or location headquarters of the brand.
It’s not a requirement for food producers to include country of origin information on their products for consumers to know but it should be! Food transparency is very important for ethical consumers who don’t want to buy foods from across the world on a regular basis.
Browse various fruits and vegetables and more to see the likely and common place of origin.
How is food transported?
Food can travel by cargo boat, plane, train and truck. Trucking is the most common means of food transit in the United States and it makes up around 70.5% of all food transportation. This comes with obvious sustainability concerns as most trucks are still using air-polluting fossil fuels – a major factor for food carbon emissions.
Downsides to long-distance food travel
Nowadays, we rarely acknowledge the luxury that is: consuming foods from around the world at an affordable price. However, easy accessibility comes at a cost -to the planet and even your health! Downsides to high food miles and long-distance food travel include:
- it’s unsustainable and bad for the environment
- it’s less healthy and does not provide optimal nutrition
- it doesn’t support local economy
- you may be supporting worker exploitation (which occurs everywhere) that is more common in underdeveloped areas of the world that lack human rights law enforcement
Why does food travel so far?
- it’s cheaper (i.e., grown, processed or packaged elsewhere for less money)
- consumers can access a variety of foods year round (i.e., strawberries in winter)
- demand for foreign and exotic foods that simply cannot grow locally (i.e., jackfruit, pineapples, kiwifruit)
A major upside to food transport is that we can now access a wide variety fruits and vegetables year-round. Observe traditional cuisine from around the world and you’ll notice regions that cannot grow produce easily and have harsh, cold winters rely on a meat based diet. On the contrary, nations that have warmer climates and year-round agriculture and tend to have vegetable-based cuisines. Nowadays, regardless of where we live, we no longer need to consume meat in order to survive the long, cold winters!
Foods that travel long-distance to USA, UK, Canada consumers:
There are many foods that come from abroad and travel long distances. Here are some you may want to cut back on, as they require tropical climates to grow and therefore must travel long-distance to reach American, British and Canadian consumers.
- Dragon Fruit (Pitaya)
- Passion Fruit
- Prickly Pear
Instead, opt for foods that can grow in many regions that you can easily find locally when in season: like apples, kale, tomatoes and potatoes to name a few.
How to calculate food miles: factors to consider
- distance from food origin to destination (farm-to-store or farm-to-home)
- weight of the food
- means of transportation (cargo ship, semi-truck, etc.)
“Flying one ton of food is close to 70 times more carbon intensive than transporting the same weight via a large cargo ship”
The Weighted Average Source Distance (WASD) formula can calculate one-ingredient items. It considers the amount of food transported in weight and the distance that it travels from the place of production to the place of sale.
On the contrary, The Weighted Total Source Distance (WTSD) formula can calculate multiple-ingredient items.
The Weighted Average Emissions Ratio (WAER) formula takes into account distance and the greenhouse gas emissions for different modes of transportation, whereas WASD and WTSD formulas do not.
Why buy locally? Benefits of local food…
- fresh food tastes better!
- it’s more sustainable for the planet
- it’s more nutritious for your health
- it’s better for local farmers, laborers and economy
- you lessen the chance of supporting worker exploitation, which exists everywhere but is more common in developing nations where little to no human rights laws exist and/or are enforced
See how much carbon your food emits with this Carbon Footprints of Foods List.
Farmers often pick fruits and vegetables before they are ripe so they will not expire during the long transportation. Preservatives, irradiation, and genetic modification are common ways to make food last longer. Even gasses like ethylene may be used to “ripen” produce after transport!
According to AATRA Sustainable Agriculture, “many fruits and vegetables are engineered for a long shelf life, sacrificing taste and nutrition for preservation”.
White strawberries, green bananas and rock-hard avocados are examples of such underripe foods you may have seen for sale.
According to a study conducted by Penn State spinach loses much of it important nutrients, like folate and vitamin B, after just 8 days!
Eat green and grow your own!
The most sustainable form of food consumption is when it comes from your backyard. While it may not be practical to grow everything you eat, you can save a significant amount of food miles and money by having your own vegetable garden. Try growing herbs indoors if you don’t have the space. It’s easier than you think!
Benefits to growing your own food include:
- lessening your environmental footprint
- virtually no food miles or carbon footprint
- no packaging involved
- no processing involved
- no refrigeration or freezing (i.e., frozen carrots)
- ensuring no harmful pesticides or chemicals are used
- reducing food waste – take from garden as needed
- eating fruits and vegetables that are fresh which means optimal nutrition and better for health
- better tasting food when produce is fresh, picked at peak ripeness
- saving money, lower your grocery bill -one $5 organic tomato plant can yield several dozens of tomatoes per season!
- no farmworkers were exploited -an all too common occurrence, everywhere in the world!
Food miles are a concern for sustainability reasons. Ultimately, consumers like you have the power and to slow climate change by making better buying decisions. Shop locally as often as possible. It’s an easy way to get better tasting produce, enjoy the nutritional benefits of fresh foods, support local economy and reduce your food’s carbon footprint!
More sustainably significant than food miles?
In terms of sustainability, the type of foods we eat may have greater environmental significance than how far food travels. For instance, a plant-based vegan diet is the most sustainable way of eating.
Check out this article on What Makes Food Sustainable Or Unsustainable to learn more.
This post was all about food travel and food miles.
AATRA Sustainable Agriculture
National Resources Defense Council: Eat Green
U.S. Fresh Vegetable Imports From Mexico and Canada Continue To Surge
Leavens, Molly. “Do food miles really matter?” Harvard University Sustainability