Food Miles: How Far Your Food Travels Has Serious Consequences for Your Health and the Climate - Natural Resources Defense Council

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Food miles: How far your food
travels has serious consequences
for your health and the climate
People are rediscovering the benefits of buying local food. It is good for
your local economy because buying directly from family farmers in your
area helps them stay in business. And by buying local, it means that your
food isn’t traveling long distances by planes, trains, trucks, and ships, which
all consume energy and spew pollution that contributes to global warming
and unhealthy air quality. Plus you get the added benefit of what many chefs
are saying is fresher, better tasting food on your table!
How your food is grown, stored, transported, processed and cooked
can all influence how it impacts climate change and the environment.
Transportation-related impacts are particularly important for imported
foods. NRDC calculated the transportation impacts of importing fresh
produce and wine widely consumed in California, directly comparing
the climate and air quality emissions from importing these foods instead
of growing and consuming them in California. We did not attempt a
full lifecycle assessment of all climate and air impacts. The results of
www.nrdc.org/policy
our analysis show that—all else being equal—locally grown foods are a
November 2007
better choice.
© Natural Resources Defense Council
Food miles: How far your food
travels has serious consequences
for your health and the climate
People are rediscovering the benefits of buying local food. It is good for
your local economy because buying directly from family farmers in your
area helps them stay in business. And by buying local, it means that your
food isn’t traveling long distances by planes, trains, trucks, and ships, which
all consume energy and spew pollution that contributes to global warming
and unhealthy air quality. Plus you get the added benefit of what many chefs
are saying is fresher, better tasting food on your table!
How your food is grown, stored, transported, processed and cooked
can all influence how it impacts climate change and the environment.
Transportation-related impacts are particularly important for imported
foods. NRDC calculated the transportation impacts of importing fresh
produce and wine widely consumed in California, directly comparing
the climate and air quality emissions from importing these foods instead
of growing and consuming them in California. We did not attempt a
full lifecycle assessment of all climate and air impacts. The results of
www.nrdc.org/policy
our analysis show that—all else being equal—locally grown foods are a
November 2007
better choice.
© Natural Resources Defense Council
Food miles: How far your
food travels has serious
consequences for your
health and the climate
How Far Does Food Travel?
Importing Pollution
Food miles are the distance food travels from
Not only are the distances that food travels from
where it is grown to where it is ultimately
farm to market important, but the modes of
purchased or consumed. Food miles—and
transport also have a large effect on how much
the resulting pollution—increase substantially
pollution is generated. For example, importing
when we consider produce and goods imported
food by airplane results in far greater emissions of
from halfway around the world. In developed
greenhouse gases than imports by ship.
nations like ours, food is traveling farther to
Although there are some exceptions, in
reach consumers and international food trade
most cases, locally produced food proves the
is increasing more rapidly than increases in
best choice for minimizing global warming and
population or food production. Between 1968
other pollutants. In fact, another study showed
and 1998, world food production increased by
that when you combined all locally grown food,
84 percent and the population by 91 percent,
it still produced less carbon dioxide emissions in
but food trade increased 184 percent. Today, the
transport than any one imported product. The
typical American prepared meal contains, on
effects all this pollution can have on our health
average, ingredients from at least five countries
may be reflected in high rates of asthma and
outside the United States.
other respiratory symptoms, as well as increased
school absence days for children.
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 CO
, which is equivalent to more
2
than 12,000 cars on the road.
Commodity Information
Country
Transport
Commodity
of Origin
Method
Table Grapes
Chile
Ship
Navel Oranges
Australia
Ship
Wine
France
Ship
Garlic
China
Ship
Rice
Thailand
Ship
Fresh Tomatoes
Mexico
Truck
Fresh Tomatoes
Netherlands
Airplane
Total Agricultural
Multiple
Ship, Truck,
Products
& Airplane
The Real Price of Imported Food:
at cargo facilities from trucks, trains, heavy
Foods
The Case of California
equipment and ships, contributes most to public
Frequently
Main
health risks from air pollution. In fact, the
In California, where agricultural commodities are
Imported by
Country
California Air Resources Board estimates that in
one of the top exports, it is ironic that so much
Air
of Origin
2005 alone, 2,400 premature deaths and 2,800
food is being imported from other states as well
hospital admissions for asthma and other diseases
as overseas. Some of these imports are because
Asparagus
Peru
were attributable to direct and indirect exposure
people expect to have foods available year-round
Bell Peppers
Netherlands
to diesel pollution from freight transport
instead of seasonally. In other cases, imports are
activities within the state.
competing directly with locally grown produce.
Blackberries
Chile
To get a real picture of what food miles
In 2005 alone, approximately 3 million tons of
Blueberries
Chile, New
means to California air quality and the health of
fruits, vegetables, cereals, nuts, and wine were
Zealand,
its citizens, NRDC analyzed the transportation-
imported from overseas into California by ship,
Argentina
related impacts of importing agricultural
airplane, and truck. Thousands of Californians
products into the state’s ports, including the large
are adversely affected by shipping goods,
Cherries
Chile
ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, and
including food. And many neighborhoods near
Raspberries
Chile
Otay Mesa on the Mexican border.
transport facilities—ranging from port terminals
What we found is eye-opening:
in Wilmington to rail yards in Commerce to
distribution centers in Riverside and truck
Almost 250,000 tons of global warming gases
n
routes through West Oakland—are low-income
released were attributable to imports of food
communities of color.
products—the equivalent amount of pollution
Higher pollution levels in some of these
produced by more than 40,000 vehicles on the
areas are well documented, and asthma rates
road or nearly two power plants.
and other health problems are also higher.
More than 6,000 tons of smog-forming
n
Numerous air monitoring and modeling studies
nitrogen oxides were released into the air—
in areas affected by transport facilities have
the equivalent of almost 1.5 million vehicles
shown dramatically higher levels of diesel soot
or 263 power plants!
than in other urban areas. More recent studies
300 tons of sooty particulate matter were
have shown unacceptably high health risk levels
n
released into the air—the equivalent of more
near major rail yards and port terminals. Diesel
than 1.2 million cars or 53 power plants.
pollution, which tends to be highly concentrated
Trade and Transport Information
Cost of Importing Food
Asthma
Smog
Diesel
and other
Tons
Greenhouse
Forming
Soot
respiratory
School
Imported
Number of
Gases
Pollutants
Particles
symptoms
Absences
2005
“Food Miles”
(tons/yr)
(tons/yr)
(tons/yr)
(cases/yr)
(days/yr)
129,721
5,909
7,343
298
15
47 (18-75)
833 (348-1363)
33,095
8,655
2,628
76
4
12 (5-19)
212 (89-347)
47,464
10,361
5,084
109
5
17 (7-27)
304 (127-498)
24,610
7,333
2,185
57
3
9 (3-14)
158 (66-258)
207,374
8,229
15,394
477
23
75 (29-120)
1330 (556-2176)
90,096
1,193
7,649
8
0.2
*
*
830
5,727
6,482
0.2
0.005
*
*
3,738,891
NA
246,596
6,146
300
951 (368-1,518)
16,871
(7,055-27,608)
* We were unable to calculate health impacts of commodities shipped via truck or air cargo.
Food miles: How far your
food travels has serious
consequences for your
health and the climate
transport by cleaning up dirty diesel ships, trucks,
Approximately 950 cases of asthma, 16,870
n
and equipment; encouraging energy efficiency;
missed schools days, 43 hospital admissions, and
collecting fees on shipping containers to help
37 premature deaths could be attributed to the
reduce the health and environmental impacts of
worsened air quality from food imports, according
shipping; and promoting local agriculture. Read
to freight transport–related projections by the
on for tips on how you can keep yourself—and
California Air Resources Board.
your Earth—healthier.
NRDC’s study also focused on six products
Support your local farmers’ market. To
that are among the top foods and beverage
n
Sharing the
find out where one is located near you, visit
imports into the state (table grapes, navel
Local Bounty
www.localharvest.org or http://guide.buylocalca.
oranges, wine, garlic, rice, and fresh tomatoes).
Community
org. If you don’t live near a farmers’ market, ask
Each of these six products is also produced in
your city to set one up for your neighborhood.
and exported from California. We traced each
Supported
product from the principal country in which
Choose local produce when it’s in season
n
Agriculture
it was grown or produced, tracked how it was
at your usual shopping places. Look on the
shipped, measured how many miles it traveled,
labels to see how far your food traveled and
and totaled up the global warming pollution
ask your favorite grocery stores, restaurants—
Community Supported
produced as a result. We also analyzed the air
Agriculture (CSA) is a way
even the cafeteria in your office—to carry
quality and health effects these six major imports
for people to link directly with
more local foods.
a local farm and to receive
could be having on California’s residents.
Avoid buying produce that has been flown
n
a weekly basket of produce.
When we examined these six major imports,
in from abroad, such as European hothouse
By making a financial
we discovered that harmful air pollution in
tomatoes, because the global warming pollution
commitment to a farm,
California produced from transporting these six
produced by this type of transport is substantially
people become “members”
foods into California was up to 45 times more
higher than others. Cherries, blueberries,
(or “shareholders,” or
than local or regional transport of California
“subscribers”) of the CSA. In
blackberries, raspberries, tomatoes, bell peppers,
grown foods—and global warming pollution
return for their investment,
and asparagus are the main fruits and vegetables
went up to 500 times that of locally grown
CSA members receive a
most frequently shipped by air.
foods when the food was imported by airplane!
bag of fresh, locally grown,
Encourage businesses and government bodies
n
Much of the pollution is borne by people living
typically organic produce,
to adopt procurement policies favoring locally
near the ports of San Diego, Long Beach, Los
flowers, fruits, eggs, milk,
grown, organic, and sustainably harvested foods
or any sort of different farm
Angeles, and Oakland, where the air pollution is
that are minimally processed.
products once a week during
concentrated because of the seaports.
the growing season. As
Get more information and take action at:
n
crops rotate throughout the
What You Can Do to Help Keep Our
www.nrdc.org/foodmiles.
season, weekly shares vary
Air Clean—and Yourself Healthy
As foreign trade increases dramatically (and
by size and types of produce,
By choosing local produce, you can reduce fuel
the global warming pollution and harmful
reflecting local growing
consumption and global warming pollution
seasons and conditions. The
health effects that go along with it do as well),
associated with transporting food, help lift your
number of CSAs in the United
you can make a real difference by taking
local agricultural communities, strengthen the
States was estimated at 50
simple steps in how you shop for your food.
local economy, and protect the environment—
in 1990, and has since grown
The more information you know about this
all by eating fresher, tastier fruits and vegetables.
to more than 1,000, so join a
issue, the better choices you can make for your
CSA in your area today.
At the policy level, NRDC’s goal is to reduce
health—and the Earth.
the health and environmental costs of food
www.nrdc.org/policy
© Natural Resources Defense Council November 2007
Printed on recycled paper

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