The list of alarmist adjectives on some food containers is so long that soon it may need to be continued on the back. Gluten-free, MSG-free, rBST-free, non-GMO, organic, no aspartame, no glyphosate, all-natural, no preservatives, no added hormones, no antibiotics.
I have addressed these concocted carton concerns before and will not be rehashing them here. But when this word parade would include the word “local,” I figured that’s one I could support. The closer the food on my plate is to the farm where it was grown, the less fuel and resultant pollutants are being produced. Or so it seemed. But Brian Dunning at Skeptoid cautions this may not always be the case. This issue is complex and edibles shipped from farther away may sometimes mean fewer emissions.
Besides being a critical thinker, skeptic, and possessor of broad knowledge, Dunning also has a background in food produce. He once worked for a company that blossomed from a family fruit stand to a chain that sold produce from local family farms. In its nascent years, the company would send a truck to each farmer it purchased from and deliver the food straight from its store to the grocer’s. As the number of stores multiplied, the company maintained this method.
But soon the owners realized that finding a farmer near each new store it opened was unfeasible. Sending a truck to each farm and to each market resulted in the routes crisscrossing and defeating the strategy’s intent. It proved to be terribly inefficient, besides being the antithesis of the green-friendliness they were aiming for.
So the company combined routes, enabling it to use fewer and smaller trucks, which meant less local produce but also less burned fuel. A distribution center still got the food out quickly but substantially reduced the total mileage. As the company continued to grow, larger distributions centers were built, sometimes even farther away from the markets they delivered to, but the energy savings continued to be realized.
This can work even on monumental scales. In some cases, Conex-sized purchases made from a company overseas might still be cheaper for the retailer. A crop’s cost is driven mostly by the conditions required to grow it. Spain’s soil and climate makes for fertile tomato growing year-round. By contrast, perennially dreary England means tomato growers there need to use heated greenhouses. The costs associated with that method must be passed onto the consumer. Therefore, a food wholesaler in Leeds would be making a good decision in terms of profit and energy efficiency if he has the red fruits shipped from Catalonia rather than from five miles away.
Or say you live in Moline and want some wool or lamb chops for your business. There are no shepherds in your neighborhood, so whatever are you to do? You could head to rural Illinois and likely find someone who could help. But if buying on a large scale, this would not be the most energy-efficient method.
New Zealand’s climate allows for perennial sheep grazing, so our prospective purchaser would be better off looking there. And despite being almost halfway around the world from New Zealand, if our British tomato buyers decided to branch into mutton, they would make less of an environmental impact by buying from someone near Auckland as opposed to someone in the London vicinity. A New York Times article noted that, “Lamb…shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produces 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton, while British lamb produces 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed.”
Finally, Dunning cited the case of cattle producer Joel Salatin, who stipulates that customers must come to his ranch. That may seem like a method of reducing emissions, but it actually exacerbates the problem. Under this plan, if 200 customers want Salatin’s beef, 200 of them will get in a car and drive to him. A better strategy would be to only service orders that use no more than a specified amount of fuel spent per pound of beef purchased. But at least he’s not selling it in packages that spend 20 words telling the consumer what’s not in it.