Article by William Petrocelli
For another look at how the way we buy—in this case food—can have a devastating impact on the environment, we offer this excerpt from Bill McKibben’s book.
The numbers are astounding: the average bite of American food has traveled more than 1,500 miles before it reaches your lips, changing hands an average of six times along the way. One study showed that in Iowa—center of the agricultural heartland, the place Americans think of when we think of farms—the average carrot had come 1,690 miles from California, the average potato 1,292 miles from Idaho, and the average chuck roast over 600 miles from Colorado. None of this makes much sense except by the standards of lowest price economics. The Swedish Food Institute, for instance, discovered that growing and distributing a pound of frozen peas required ten times as much energy as the peas contained. Say you grow a head of iceberg lettuce in the Salinas Valley of California and ship it back east: you use 36 times as many calories of fossil energy as the lettuce actually contains. Ship it to London, and you use 127 times as many calories. A pound of grapes flown in from Chile effectively gives off six pounds of carbon dioxide...
The international food trade just keeps increasing. In the last four decades, the tonnageof food shipped between countries has grown fourfold, while human population has barely doubled. Seventy-five percent of the apples for sale in New York City come from the West Coast or overseas, even though New York State produces ten times as man apples as the residents of the Big Apple consume. In England, farmers ship roughly the same amount of milk, pork, and lamb abroad as British supermarkets import, in what agricultural economists call a food swap. As Herman Dal once wrote, “Americans import Danish sugar cookies, and Danes import American sugar cookies. Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient.” In much of the world, 40 percent of the truck traffic comes from the shuttling of food over long distances.
Here’s the bottom line: if
the oil runs out, we won’t be able to farm or trade this way any longer.
And if we took global warming seriously, we’d stop doing it right now:
compared with regional and local food systems, our national and
international model releases five to seventeen times more carbon dioxide
into the atmosphere.