Thinking about real food costs in terms of distance travelled

The distance your food travels to get to your table

By Donovan Wilkin, Ph.D.

My breakfast today consisted of a bowl of raisin bran with rice milk, a serving of blueberries, and a banana.  In terms of promoting my long-term health, this meal does a good job.  In terms of promoting the long-term health of the planet, it sucks.  


The blueberries came from Chile. The banana came from China. The rice for the rice milk came from Thailand. The raisins came from central California. The wheat came from western Nebraska. On a rough weighted average by weight, my breakfast travelled about 5,465 miles to grace my table. That, it turns out, is substantially greater than what someone has calculated as the average distance from farm-to-table for most American meals, about 1,500 miles on average.            

In 1969, while writing my doctoral dissertation on human carrying capacity, I calculated that the average calorie of food on an American plate at the time was subsidized by about 10 calories of petrochemical energy for planting, cultivating, fertilizing, harvesting, transporting, processing, storing, and cooking. Since then, that figure has risen significantly because of greater average shipping distances, more processing, and higher grain-fed milk, meat, and cheese content of our diets.

One of the most important arguments for building a local food economy is to reduce food miles, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which reduces the potential severity of climate change. But you can’t build a local food economy without investing in it. Contact today, and help guarantee your food future.  

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