Food miles are the average miles that food travels from the farm to the consumer. Since more than 80% of the U.S. grocery purchases are now processed foods, a huge percentage of the carbon or fossil fuel footprint of industrial agriculture comes from transporting factory farm crops or animals to the processing plant or slaughterhouse and then transporting these processed foods from the processing plant to the dinner table via the supermarket. By reducing the processed foods in our diet we can greatly reduce the food miles or carbon footprint for which our households are responsible, since the shorter the distance food travels, the lower the greenhouse gas emissions.
Part of the locavore ethic is to get people to eat from their own foodshed, to save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulate the local economy. But real “local” is also about stimulating a return to in-home food preparation, an appreciation for taste, and the joy in cooking – and eating. As folks begin to appreciate the taste of locally grown fresh organic foods, their dependence on processed foods from afar usually dwindles.
The 20% of the U.S. diet that is not processed food includes fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, farm raised meats, eggs, whole grains, cold pressed oils, raw honey, syrup, natural sugars, etc. Though only 20% of the total food budget, the sales of non-processed food are huge! Unfortunately, production of non-processed foods is largely regional with production concentrated on the southern half of both coasts and the southwest. So, even a majority of the fresh foods come from afar. This requires lots of trucking and refrigeration to get the food to local markets the across the country.
“Fresh food miles” indeed contribute to the high CO2 emissions from the U.S. food system, but these whole foods are certainly not the major greenhouse gas contributor in our food system. That dubious honor belongs to factory-farmed meat, eggs, and milk, which generate 30 to 50% of all of the U.S. greenhouse gases, more than industry and fossil fuels combined.
Fortunately, locally and nationally, farmers have worked out strategies of how to grow fresh foods in the middle of the winter with better technology and a minimum of heat, even in extremely cold places like Maine, Vermont, Minnesota, and Montana. Consequently, farmers and consumers are growing and storing food throughout the year so that they are not responsible for so many food miles on their tables.
Our thesis is that a majority of our food miles could be chopped off if we prepare more of our food from local ingredients. But, that begs another question. What kind of local ingredients?
Chemical and Local versus Organic and Local
Some growers and brokers argue that local, chemically grown is better than fresh organic, because so much that is organic travels long distances from the two coasts. If they are talking about comparing supermarket fresh organic with fresh chemically grown local, we should still choose supermarket organic, because, whether they are used locally or nationally, pesticides and fertilizers are more dangerous and deadly to your health and the health of the environment than chemically-free organic foods transported from outside your local region.
Chemical farmers are not inspected or reprimanded by the federal or state governments as to their use or abuse of pesticides or fertilizers unless there is an accident, whether they are local farmers or factory farmers from California, Florida, or China. The only way the abusers are caught is when there is a fish kill, a labor poisoning, a recall after multiple poisonings, or some other notable injury as a result of a spill, overuse, or carelessness.
By contrast, organic growers are inspected every year and can be inspected at any time the certifying agency or the federal government (USDA) deems it appropriate. These are the rules in California, Vermont, Chile, and all countries that grow and market certified organic products. Because organic farms are inspected (at least once a year), and their soil and water checked for toxins, consumers can be secure that organic products are the safest on the market. Consumers can be confident that organic food does not contain poisonous pesticide residues, did not poison farmworkers, and was not grown with a fertilizer that trashed the soil, the water, the atmosphere, and the oceans.
Organic farming is a set of techniques and strategies that encourage life to come back into the soil and into our food. Chemical fertilizers kill soil life and inhibit the accumulation of organic matter (plant residues in the soil). Organic matter is critical to organic farmers because nutrients cling to organic matter, so the plant roots can efficiently find and mine nutrients and water at those spots.
Organic farmers add nutrients such as lime, rock phosphate, potash, and sulfur in an effort to get the soil balanced so that the maximum amount of all nutrients and water are available to foraging plant roots. This soil-balancing act is a constant process. On light and sandy soils, organic matter must be replaced every year by growing a fertilizer crop and by adding small amounts of compost, which has billions of soil microorganisms. These critters go to work breaking down organic matter and making it available to plant roots while constantly adding to the fertility by defecating the digested organic matter (and they work 24-7, not 9 to 5).
To control pests, organic farmers rotate their crops, so that pests do not build up from continuous monocropping. Instead of toxic pesticides, organic growers use beneficial insects as predators and parasites on pests. They use bacterial sprays for certain worms and beetles. They spray clay on their apples and other fruits. They use insect traps and lures. And they use trap crops that the insects like better than the main crop. They use disease resistant crops that are immune or less prone to disease. And they monitor their fields often so that they can spot problems early.
The Gold Standard: Local and Organic
Local organic food and farming are the gold standard. Organic farmers gladly adhere to a set of regulations, use non-toxic products, and accept the need to be scrutinized by an independent third party inspector. Why? Because regulation of food safety is essential to guaranteeing consumers that the farmer has their health and well being at the center of his or her business plan. The organic regulatory process is neither easy nor happily anticipated by the farmer. But it is necessary! It is our covenant with our customers.
There are no regulations governing “local” chemically grown or GMO-derived food. Anything goes! Nobody is inspecting the farm! Nobody is watching the store! As a customer, you must also be the regulator of non-organic food. Instead of depending on a regulator, you as a customer should ask the “local” growers what they used as a fertilizer source, how they controlled pests and diseases, and what chemicals they used to stimulate yield.
When the local chemical grower tells you that local is better than organic, tell them that they should switch to organic so that you can trust their food to be safe, clean, inspected, and environmentally friendly. Local food is not the gold standard, and may not even be safe. Local-organic is the gold standard.