Food Travels Far to Reach Your Table

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 21, 2002 (ENS) - As families travel across the United States next week to gather for the Thanksgiving holiday, many will sit down to eat food that has traveled even farther - between 1,500 and 2,500 miles (2,500 and 4,000 kilometers) from farm to table. A new study by the Worldwatch Institute details the lengthy journeys that much of the nation's food supply now takes, finding a growing separation between the sources and destinations of American food.


Supermarket produce may have traveled thousands of miles to reach your local store. (Photo by Ken Hammond. All photos courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
The distance that food travels has grown by as much as 25 percent, according to the report by the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental and social policy research institute based in Washington DC. The nation's reliance on a complex network of food shipments leaves the United States vulnerable to supply disruptions, the group argues.

"The farther we ship food, the more vulnerable our food system becomes," said Worldwatch research associate Brian Halweil, author of "Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market."

"Many major cities in the U.S. have a limited supply of food on hand," Halweil added. "That makes those cities highly vulnerable to anything that suddenly restricts transportation, such as oil shortages or acts of terrorism."

This vulnerability is not limited to the United States. The tonnage of food shipped between countries has grown fourfold over the last four decades, while the world's population has doubled. In the United Kingdom, for example, food travels 50 percent farther than it did two decades ago.

This reliance on long distance food damages rural economies, as farmers and small food businesses become the most marginal link in the sprawling food chain, says the Worldwatch report. Long distance travel also creates numerous opportunities along the way for food contamination, and requires the use of artificial additives and preservatives to keep food from spoiling.


Shipping fish and other products from around the world requires the burning of fossil fuels, contributing to global warming. (USDA Photo by Ken Hammond)
Food transportation also contributes to global warming, because of the huge quantities of fuel used for transportation. A typical meal bought from a conventional supermarket chain - including some meat, grains, fruit and vegetables - consumes four to 17 times more petroleum for transport than the same meal using local ingredients.

"We are spending far more energy to get food to the table than the energy we get from eating the food. A head of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives," Halweil said.

While most economists believe that long distance food trade is efficient because communities and nations can buy their food from the lowest cost provider, studies from North America, Asia, and Africa show that farm communities reap little benefit from their crops, and often suffer as a result of freer trade in agricultural goods.

"The economic benefits of food trade are a myth," said Halweil. "The big winners are agribusiness monopolies that ship, trade, and process food. Agricultural policies, including the new [Bush administration backed] farm bill, tend to favor factory farms, giant supermarkets, and long distance trade, and cheap, subsidized fossil fuels encourage long distance shipping. The big losers are the world's poor."


The Crescent City Farmer's Market meets in New Orleans, Louisiana every Saturday morning, offering baked goods, fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs and canned goods. (USDA Photo by Bill Tarpenning)
Farmers producing for export often go hungry as they sacrifice the use of their land to feed foreign mouths, Halweil writes. Meanwhile, poor urban dwellers in both developed and developing nations find themselves living in neighborhoods without supermarkets, green grocers, or healthy food choices.

"Of course, a certain amount of food trade is natural and beneficial. But money spent on locally produced foods stays in the community longer, creating jobs, supporting farmers, and preserving local cuisines and crop varieties against the steamroller of culinary imperialism," Halweil added. "And developing nations that emphasize greater food self reliance can retain precious foreign exchange and avoid the instability of international markets."

Halweil points to a vigorous, emerging local food movement that is challenging both the wisdom and practice of long distance food shipping.

"Massive meat recalls, the advent of genetically engineered food, and other food safety crises have built interest in local food," he said. "Rebuilding local food economies is the first genuine profit making opportunity in farm country in years."

Communities that seek to meet their food needs locally will reap benefits including a more diverse variety of regional crops, cheaper food that avoids added costs from intermediate handlers and shippers, and a boon for the local economy as money spent on food goes to local growers and merchants. Of course, many consumers will choose local produce just for the flavor.


Unlike supermarket tomatoes, which are often shipped green and ripened artificially, these locally grown tomatoes ripened on the vine. (USDA Photo by Bill Tarpenning)
"Locally grown food served fresh and in season has a definite taste advantage," Halweil said. "It's harvested at the peak of ripeness and doesn't have to be fumigated, refrigerated, or packaged for long distance hauling and long shelf life."

In the United States, for example, more than half of all tomatoes are harvested and shipped green, and then artificially ripened upon arrival at their final destination.

Consumers now have a growing variety of local food providers to choose from. The number of registered farmers' markets in the United States has jumped from 300 in the mid-1970s and 1,755 in 1994 to more than 3,100 today. About three million people now visit these markets each week, spending more than $1 billion each year.

Innovative restaurants, school cafeterias, caterers, hospitals, and even supermarkets are beginning to offer fresh, seasonal foods from local farmers and food businesses.


Consumers can promote local growers by choosing to buy their produce and baked goods from farmers markets. (USDA Photo by Bill Tarpenning)
North America now boasts more than a dozen local food policy councils, which track changes in the local food system, lobby for farmland protection, point citizens towards local food options, and help create incentives for local food businesses.

But the most powerful force behind the growing local food market is the consumer. The Worldwatch report offers several suggestions for how consumers can help to promote local food systems, including:

For more information on the report, "Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market," visit the Worldwatch Institute at: