Miles That Matter
Buying locally grown food isn’t always better for the environment.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Organic asparagus from Chile, blackberries grown in Mexico, and sweet yellow onions from Peru. Glancing at Safeway’s produce section, it’s clear this food traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of miles before it hit the Del Rey Oaks store’s shelves. But nowhere on the packaging of Driscoll’s strawberries or Pacific International Marketing cauliflower are the hidden miles listed. Although these crops were grown in Watsonville and Salinas, respectively, they first traveled more than 100 miles to Safeway’s distribution center in Tracy, Calif. The fruits and vegetables then were trucked back down to the local Safeway.
These trips add to a product’s food miles, the distance food travels before consumers buy it. Transportation, studies show, is one of the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, which have been linked to global warming. Since the issue of climate change has become a worldwide concern, reducing food miles is a concept that is catching on nationally and in Monterey County. The goal dovetails with those of sustainability groups and buy-local advocates. People known as localvores even go so far as to only eat foods grown within a 100- or 150-mile radius of where they live.
Laura Strohm, founder of the Monterey-based Sustainability Academy, says she and her husband tried eating a local-only diet for a week. “It was tough,” Strohm says. “My husband likes coffee. I looked at my Egyptian chamomile tea and I thought ‘I sure liked that.’” Coffee and tea are not grown around here.
With so much food planted and harvested in Monterey County, it is feasible to follow a localvore diet – without flour, bananas and other foods grown outside the radius, of course. On a micro level, local restaurants, like Cachagua General Store, primarily offer food from within that 150-mile range.
But on a large scale, the county’s $3.5 billion agriculture industry thrives by shipping fresh produce across the country and around the world. Limiting the county’s bounty to local or regional markets would drastically hurt the industry’s bottom line.
Harder than it looks
Even as more consumers buy food that is grown locally and organically, it is not simple to maintain a so-called low-carbon diet. Such a diet could include food produced and processed using alternative fuels, such as solar or wind power, or through use of biofuels in farm equipment and transportation.
Low food miles are another component.
Comparing Watsonville-grown cucumbers with Safeway’s organic cucumbers from Mexico, it’s easy to assume growing and transporting the local vegetables resulted in fewer emissions of greenhouse gases. But food miles make up only one toe of a product’s carbon footprint.
“I think food miles are a really good concept to engage the public,” says Tom Tomich, director of the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute and the statewide Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. “But if you want to make a decision about the environment, they don’t really give you enough information.”
A true environmental analysis includes how the food was produced, processed, transported, prepared and thrown away, which is known as a life-cycle assessment.
Driving a long distance to pick up a small amount of local food, for instance, can be counterproductive. Gail Feenstra, a food systems analyst with the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, says driving an SUV to a farmers market can cancel out the energy saved by buying local.
Feenstra says it takes more energy to produce meat products and processed foods than vegetarian and whole-grain foods. Livestock manure releases large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, which are more harmful greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. According to a 2006 study by the United Nations, cattle-rearing generates more greenhouse gases than the world’s cars and trucks. Processed foods with multiple ingredients require more electricity to produce and more food miles to get all the components to the factory.
Behind the curve
Considering all these environmental factors, researchers have come to some surprising conclusions. For example, scholars at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, found that shipping lamb more than 11,000 miles from New Zealand to the United Kingdom is four times more energy efficient than raising lamb in the UK. That’s partly because New Zealand farmers use less fuel and electricity. And since their pastures are larger and greener, the lambs and grass don’t require as much feed and fertilizer, according to the study. Lincoln University researchers found similar results for dairy products, apples and onions. Another European study showed that Spanish tomatoes grown in open soil and shipped to northern Europe used less fossil fuel because Danish, Swedish and Dutch tomatoes were grown in heated greenhouses.
This doesn’t mean people should stop buying local. There are other benefits, such as fresher food and supporting the local economy. But more research needs to be done on what are the biggest factors in greenhouse gas emissions from food production. Tomich says studies have shown that what happens to a food after it is bought accounts for a quarter of a product’s energy use, when considering the trip to the grocery store, keeping food in a refrigerator and cooking it on a stove.
Compared with Europe, Tomich says, California is behind the food systems research curve. The Sustainability Institute plans to study carbon emissions from tomato-paste production and transportation, and wants to analyze ways to bring more local food to institutional markets, such as universities and hospitals.
While no food miles studies have been conducted in Monterey County, researchers at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames found huge mileage differences between locally grown and conventionally grown produce. According to the center’s 2003 study, conventionally grown broccoli traveled 1,846 miles, compared with 20 miles for local broccoli.
When comparing national, regional and local food systems for crops, the Leopold Center found that a regional system used the least fuel and emitted the least carbon dioxide. The regional system consisted of small- and mid-sized farmers cooperating to deliver local produce to supermarkets using semi-trailers and mid-sized trucks.
But the scenario is different in Monterey County, where the nation depends on the Salinas Valley for the bulk of its greens. California provides the United States with about half of its fruits, nuts and vegetables. In 2004, California accounted for 73 percent of the nation’s lettuce production, the majority from the Salinas Valley, according to a report by the Agriculture Issues Center at UC Davis. Monterey County produced more than 133 million pounds of lettuce in 2006, according to the county’s crop report.
The crops don’t stop at U.S. borders, either. In 2006, Monterey County exported more than 340 million pounds of produce to Canada and nearly 76 million pounds to Taiwan, among other places.
John Baillie, president of Baillie Family Farms in Salinas, says the majority of local growers’ customer base is on the East Coast. And that requires using diesel-burning trucks.
“When I was a kid we used to load rail cars by the dozen,” Baillie says. “We don’t have the rail available anymore. Trucks have taken over… that’s all we have.”
Baillie says it’s hard to reduce food miles when the rest of the country is so dependent on Monterey County for produce.
“If we quit shipping to the East Coast, we would grow 75 percent less of what we already grow and the rest of the world would starve,” he says.
Steve Davis, sales manager for Mills Family Farms in Salinas, agrees.
“We do everything that we can at a local level to be as ‘green’ as we can,” Davis says. “But because it has to travel there is not a whole lot you can do.”
Even supermarket chains that sell Salinas Valley produce first ship the crops to northern California, agriculture officials say. Safeway and Costco send produce to Tracy. Raley’s, another supermarket chain that owns Nob Hill stores, sends its produce to Sacramento for distribution. According to Baillie, the chains will get their produce from farther away depending on prices.
“Unfortunately, it comes down to your bottom line,” he says.
Rebecca Thistlethwaite, program director for the Agricultural & Land-Based Training Association in Salinas, says the food system “is set up to not purchase locally.”
The association is trying to change this. It trains small farmer to grow sustainable crops, and keeps its product line, ALBA Organics, primarily in the Monterey and San Francisco Bay areas. It sells fruits and vegetables to institutions like Asilomar Conference Center, Monterey Plaza Hotel, UC Santa Cruz and Stanford University.
Thistlethwaite estimates that about half of the produce association farmers grow stays local through farmers markets and other methods, while the rest is sold wholesale.
“We are encouraging our farmers to sell directly to local restaurants and taquerias and farmers stands,” Thistlethwaite says. “It’s not so much a food miles issue as it is about food access.” She says it’s a travesty that farmworkers who pick and grow Salinas Valley crops don’t have access to those fresh fruits and vegetables.
Although trucks come to pick up Earthbound Farm produce and deliver it all over the United States, the fact that it’s organic prohibits use of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers. This year, Earthbound’s 34,000 acres will save 370,000 pounds of pesticides and nearly 11.5 million pounds of synthetic fertilizers, according to Samantha Cabaluna, director of communication for Earthbound. Earthbound also plants about 50,000 trees a year to help offset its carbon emissions, Cabaluna says.
“We’d like to find ways to be better,” Cabaluna says.
Earthbound also supplies organic crops directly to restaurants and institutions like CSU Monterey Bay and Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.
Knowing the farmers
Michael Jones of A Movable Feast and Cachagua Store gets most of his ingredients from within 150 miles of his business, which is only open as a restaurant on Sundays and Mondays. Jones says he buys from farmers markets and Serendipity Farms, so he knows who grows his crops.
“Our whole philosophy is farmers with a face,” Jones says.
This way, Jones serves only seasonal fruits and vegetables.
“Right now we are mourning the end of the tomato season,” Jones says. “We have squash. Mushrooms are going to pop up pretty soon. We just change our menu a little bit.”
Jones says he gets his natural, hormone-free beef, lamb and pork through Niman Ranch in the Mendocino area, and his chicken from Fulton Valley Farms in Fulton, Calif. But there are certain items Jones doesn’t get regionally.
“We are East Coast oyster whores,” Jones jokes.
Other ingredients, like flour, is mainly processed elsewhere in the country, while most California rice comes from the Sacramento Valley.
Jones admits that buying products locally can be expensive and it may not be practical for restaurants that depend on year-round ingredients to keep a set menu.
But Jones says a slight shift in a menu could mean a lot for local farmers.
“If those restaurants made an effort to buy super local stuff when it’s available, that little economic decision boosts that local farmer,” he says.
Jones adds that farmers will plant more and expand their business if they know restaurants will buy their produce.
Passionfish restaurant in Pacific Grove also strives to serve local foods. But that’s pretty tough when it comes to sustainable seafood, says co-owner Cindy Walter.
“We don’t have much of a local fishery left at all,” Walter says.
She says the restaurant gets get some spot prawns and squid from local fishermen, but that’s about it. She says most of the restaurant’s fish comes from Alaska. It also uses sustainable sturgeon from the California Delta region and sustainable tilapia from South America.
“We’ve been so frustrated with the fish,” Walter says. “I can’t even think of the food miles. I have to find a really artisanal community and make sure my dollar is impacting that community.”
Passionfish also get its produce from local farmers markets.
As evidenced by the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Market at Monterey Peninsula College, it is conceivable to buy all the produce you need within a 150-mile radius. The market offers portabella mushrooms, red bell peppers, and Thai basil from Watsonville; persimmons and pumpkins from Corralitos; apricots from Hollister; ahi tuna from Santa Cruz and eggs from Las Lomas.
Four Sisters Farm even sells kiwis. While supermarket kiwis usually are shipped from New Zealand, this farm’s organic fruit bulbs were grown on hills in Aromas, says Tom Konicke, a Four Sisters Farm employee.
Esther Vasquez of Vasquez Farms sells organic raspberries and strawberries for $3 a box. The organic berries come from Las Lomas, about 20 miles away. “The same day we pick, the same day we come and sell the strawberries,” she says. Vasquez says she and her husband, Rudy, only sell in farmers markets locally and in the Bay area.
On a micro level, Vasquez Farms is providing a way for localvores to live out their ideals. Some farmer’s market patrons, however, say food miles aren’t foremost on their minds when they shop here.
Mark Doton of Monterey says he supports the market because the food tastes better.
“The fact that it hasn’t traveled far is a nice side benefit,” Doton says.
Solomon Terry of Monterey says he comes to the market because of the freshness and proximity to his house. Terry, holding a bag of apples and fresh-cut flowers under his arms, says it’s also good that the food isn’t shipped across the country like produce he’d find in a grocery store.
Terry says he focuses on other ways to cut down on greenhouse emissions like running all his errands at once. With gas approaching $4 a gallon, Terry says he has dusted off his bike and has it ready to ride.
“If we can’t save the world for ourselves,” he says. “Let’s save it for our children.”
All in all, reducing food miles doesn’t hold all the answers to addressing global warming and lessening fuel consumption. While achieving a low-carbon diet isn’t as simple as buying close to home, Feenstra of UC Davis says food miles are still valuable to count.
“It’s a great starting concept to get people to think about where their food comes from,” she says.