When I first heard the term “food miles” I had two reactions in fairly rapid succession. My first was that it was the most ridiculous term that I’ve ever heard. The second thought was, “oh wait, you’re right…I have no idea where that tomato I just bought came from…come to think of it…it’s the middle of March, tomatoes don’t grow in March!?!”
Before we get too far ahead, a food miles are the term given to the distance that a particular food has traveled to get to you. Generally, the fewer the food miles, the better off we are. So, if you live in California and you are eating apples from New Zealand…probably not the greatest thing you could be doing…lots of food miles.
Before we get into the reasons why food miles aren’t great, I want to discuss how food trade has changed over the last few decades. Before things like refrigeration, waxing, and ethylene gas (which is a whole different, but equally scary story, but its the C 2H 4 in the picture to the left), we basically had to eat things when they were fresh. Fruit and vegetables couldn’t take 6 months to travel across the globe to get to you. You bought things that were grown nearby and everyone was happy and healthy. However, this has all changed. In a report published by the National Resources Defense Council (yes, our natural resources need defending), it was reported that “Between 1968 and 1998, world food production increased by 84 percent and the population by 91 percent, but food trade increased 184 percent.” The math there doesn’t really keep up. It went on to say that “the typical American prepared meal contains, on average, ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States.” We as Americans, and individuals in the developed world in general, have grown accustomed to being able to get whatever we want, whenever we want it, with little regard of the trip that particular food had to take to get here.
So now lets discuss the problems with this. There are many, but the two that I really want to focus on are the environmental impact and the health impact.
Lets start with the environment. Food travels to you using methods that emit CO2. There really isn’t a way around this. If your local farmer loads avocados in his truck, drives them 2 miles to your farmers market, CO2 was emitted during this. If your apple was put on a truck, then on a train, then on an airplane, flown around the world, then on another train, then on another truck…CO2 was emitted. A lot more of it. Because it is so convenient to chose the latter, that’s the source of our problem. In the same report by the NRDC, they have suggested that “imports by airplane have a substantial impact on global warming pollution. In 2005, the import of fruits, nuts, and vegetables into California by airplane released more than 70,000 tons of CO2, which is equivalent to more than 12,000 cars on the road.”
Okay, so if that isn’t enough reason to buy local, consider the health benefits. In an article published by Mother Earth Living, it clearly describes the benefits of eating food when its at the height of ripeness by stating that “Most fruits and vegetables reach their nutritional peak around the same time they ought to be harvested—which, conveniently, is also when they taste the best. The redder a red tomato is, for example, the more beta-carotene it contains. Same goes for peppers: As the pepper progresses from green to red, a bell pepper gains 11 times more beta-carotene and 1 1/2 times more vitamin C.”.
However, in order for food to travel around the globe, it has to be picked way before its ripe and artificially ripened…enter the ethylene gas.
So, to summarize, at the very biggest picture, eating local food is healthy. Eating local food reduces carbon dioxide emissions. Oh, and it helps the local economy.
This may require more than just a Saturday trip to the farmer’s market though. It requires a change in thinking, we need to go back a few decades and start eating food that’s in season, when its in season. If its March, don’t buy tomatoes. If its late summer, get all the green vegetables you can eat. There are countless resources, websites, books, apps which guide you through this. There are even recipe books which list recipes by season so you can still eat amazing food without having to compromise.