Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why Food Miles Matter - Part 1

For some people I may be preaching to the choir, so to speak, when it comes to the issue of food miles, and if that is the case for you, please forgive me, but for far too many people, this is still a foreign concept. First off, what are food miles? Food miles refer to the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is finally purchased or consumed by an end user. In the United States, the average piece of local fresh produce travels 56 food miles while its conventional counterpart travels an average of over 1,494 miles. To put this in perspective, it is approximately 1,255 miles from Boston, Massachusetts to Miami, Florida. So why is this so important? Whether you are an environmentalist or not, food miles make a significant difference in the food you eat because they can affect taste, nutrition, biodiversity, energy consumption, local economies and communities, food safety, and workers rights, amongst other things.

-Taste, Nutrition, and Food Safety: Locally sourced foods tend to be fresher, being harvested shortly before transport. Because the foods don’t have a long way to travel, farmers can focus on breeding their crops to be tastier, higher quality, more nutritious, and more adapted to the unique climate of the area. Oftentimes, you will hear about breeds called ‘heirlooms,’ which have been around for generations. When foods are being purchased that have traveled a longer distance, they obviously are not as fresh as they could be, and to make the journey in one piece, the crops are bred for uniform shape and appearance and durability to make transportation easier. The farther your food travels the more freshness is lost and the more nutrients are depleted. Unlike the local options that are picked at the peak of freshness, long distance foods are picked before they are ripe and then artificially ripened, which gives the produce the appearance of being ripe but not the flavor or nutritive value so they can make it to the store and still be edible. The issue of food safety enters the picture when we combine two important qualities about our food sources: we allow them to be anonymous and we allow them to disperse their foods all over the country if not the world. When local producers are selling directly to the consumer, as is the case in many local foods situations, they are held fully accountable for their product and how it is created. If they know that their consumers can drive to their farming operation to wander around and see how it functions, common sense declares that they are less likely to use questionable standards. Also, in terms of food safety, if there is a food outbreak from a particular farm in a local foods situation, the exact source is drastically easier to trace. The anonymity created in the large scale food industry allows farms to use practices that we as consumers may not approve of if we saw them. An example of this involves the E. Coli outbreak in spinach in 2006 in which 1,002 pounds of spinach from a single farm in California was able to sicken 204 people across 26 states and Canada. The suspected cause of the outbreak involved a farm operation with irrigation wells near surface waterways that were contaminated with feces from cattle and wild pigs that tested positive for the E. coli strain.

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