The Food Miles Metaphor: Todaybs Global Food System

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Food Miles: A Simple Metaphor to Contrast Global Food Systems
By Rich Pirog, Marketing and Food Systems Research Program Leader, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ames, Iowa

The majority of Americans participate in a complex national and global food system. Most of their food production and processing occurs far away from where they live and buy their groceries. It was not always this way; prior to World War II most of the agricultural production and marketing systems in the United States had a strong local or regional base, and farms supplied that base with a wide variety of crop and livestock products.

Changes occurred rapidly after World War II as agriculture became increasingly specialized. The introduction of new technologies allowed many states to focus their agricultural production on just a few crop and livestock enterprises in order to have an economic competitive advantage. As late as the 1950s there were 25 to 30 different crop and livestock commodities produced on at least one percent of the farms in the Midwest; by the end of the 1990s there were only 15 or fewer commodities produced on at least one percent of the farms in the Midwest.

Today, most of the food for sale in grocery stores comes from farms in states or countries through a system that is, for the most part, invisible to the consumer. American consumers demand quality, but want their food prices to be as low as possible. The result is that an increasing volume of food production (not unlike clothing/textile production) has moved to where land and labor costs are low.

Many consumers are interested in local foods because of perceived benefits of freshness, great taste, and high quality. This occurs because the local produce is likely to reach the consumer more quickly than the conventional product. Even with the resurgence in farmers markets and other direct farm-to-consumer commerce, the percentage of fresh produce purchased nationally through direct markets is estimated to be less than two percent, and many consumers do not seem to understand or care where their food is produced.

The Food Miles Metaphor:

Food miles have the potential to serve as such a metaphor. A food mile is the distance food travels from where it is grown or raised to where it is ultimately purchased by the consumer or end-user. It is relatively easy to calculate food miles for a food product that remains intact from the time it leaves the farm until its purchase.

Table 1 compares the local versus conventional average food miles for the 16 different produce items investigated in this Iowa study. Note that the sum of all 16 food mile averages for local produce to reach Iowa institutions was 716 miles, slightly less than the distance from Des Moines, Iowa to Denver, Colorado.

The sum of the average food miles from conventionally sourced produce to reach those same Iowa institutions was an estimated 25,301 miles; nearly 400 miles further than the circumference of the earth (measured at the equator).

Table 1. Comparison of local versus conventional source food miles

Food miles also can provide a relative indicator of the amount of energy or fuel used to transport food from farm to store, with lower food miles signaling lower transportation fuel usage and cost. If the energy source is fossil fuel, then the combustion of the fuel will emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

Thus, fewer food miles would translate to lower greenhouse gas emissions – another environmental incentive to purchase local foods. Using food miles as a relative indicator of greenhouse gases may be misleading, however, unless the mode of transportation is accounted for. Water transport uses far less fuel per pound transported than rail, which uses less than trucking, which uses less than air transport.

Case in point; grapes shipped by water transport from Chile to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania rack up higher food miles than California grapes shipped by truck to Philadelphia. But since water transport is much more fuel-efficient, the fuel use and CO2 emissions per pound of grapes transported are about the same for both systems.

Figures 1 and 2. Examples of Food Miles Ecolabels


Building contextual bridges between freshness and food miles.

Regardless of whether they are buying produce, dairy products, eggs, or meat, consumers value freshness as much or more than any other food attribute.11 Food miles information provided within the context of the time involved in transport and storage from farm to point-of-sale can be used to develop a construct parallel to bfreshness datesb often found in perishable items such as milk, orange juice and yogurt. Applying food miles in the appropriate context may help consumers realize that the road to freshness is a short one, indeed.