They’re not from around here: Why food-miles matter

Darby Witherspoon

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Produce in the United States travels, on average, 1,500 miles from the farm where it is grown to the table where it is consumed. Approximately 5 ingredients in a normal American meal are imported.  Between 1995 and 2013, food imports increased 115% in the United States. This country’s reliance on transporting huge amounts of food not only between states but also on external food sources is undeniable, as are the effects.

The environment, of course, has not escaped unscathed. In 2005 in California alone, airplanes bringing in food from other countries released 70,000 tons of CO2. But the environmental impact of transporting food depends more on the type of transportation than the distance, in many cases. For example, food shipped via airplane has a much greater carbon footprint than food shipped the same distance via train. So why bother paying higher prices to eat local? It would seem to make the most sense to just avoid foods transported via environmentally unfriendly systems if the intention is to solely reduce greenhouse gas emissions or pollution.

Such a solution would be plausible if consumers didn’t care about the quality and freshness of their food, but most would agree that an apple from Charlottesville’s Carter Mountain is tastier than an apple flown in from China. Purchasing patterns tend to show that consumers are likely to opt for the local option if aware of the difference in distance, reinforcing the expectation of it’s higher quality.

What accounts for the taste difference? Perhaps it is due to the age of the produce. 1-methylcyclopropene is a chemical used by fruit producers to keep produce from over ripening and to allow for storing it for much longer than it would keep naturally—in some cases, up to a year. While the chemical has minimal known side effects, allowing fruits and vegetables to sit for such long periods of time decreases their vitamins and their taste. Produce with lower food-miles have no need for 1-MCP; the smaller distance travelled means faster farm-to-table time means fewer unnatural chemicals needed to keep it edible means more vitamin-enriched fruits and veggies—the way they’re supposed to be.

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Additionally, produce with fewer food-miles tends to be grown through more sustainable farming practices because local farmers have more accountability. Food production centers that are thousands of miles away have less motivation to be responsible to local constituencies because there is no transparency as with a farmer down the road.

Luckily for the consumer, local food is more accessible than ever before, and Charlottesville is particularly committed to the movement. All it takes is for consumers to be cognizant of where their food is coming from because food miles do have an impact on the world around us as well as our own health.

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