When far-flung families get together for holiday meals, much of their food will have logged more miles than their relatives and friends around the table, finds a new study by the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental and social policy research organization based in Washington, D.C.

In the United States, food now travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table, as much as 25 percent farther than two decades ago.

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

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

This vulnerability is not limited to the U.S. The tonnage of food shipped between countries has grown fourfold over the last four decades. 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. This trend also creates numerous opportunities along the way for contamination, while contributing to global warming, because of the huge quantities of fuel used for transportation.

"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 says.

Surveys have shown that a typical meal - some meat, grain, fruits and vegetables - using local ingredients entails four to 17 times less petroleum consumption in transport than the same meal bought from the conventional food chain.

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 farm communities reap little benefit, and often suffer as a result of freer trade in agricultural goods.

"The economic benefits of food trade are a myth. The big winners are agribusiness monopolies that ship, trade and process food," Halweil says. "Agricultural policies, including the new 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."

Farmers producing for export often go hungry as they sacrifice the use of their land to feed foreign mouths, Halweil says. Poor urbanites in both the First and Third Worlds find themselves living in neighborhoods without supermarkets, green grocers and healthy food choices.

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 says. "Rebuilding local food economies is the first genuine profit-making opportunity in farm country in years."

In the U.S., the number of registered farmers' markets has jumped from 300 in the mid-1970s and 1,755 in 1994 to more than 3,100 today. Approximately three million people visit these markets each week and spend 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.

"Locally grown food served fresh and in season has a definite taste advantage," says Halweil, "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 U.S., more than half of all tomatoes are harvested and shipped green, and then artificially ripened upon arrival at their final destination.

"Of course, a certain amount of food trade is natural and beneficial," says Halweil. "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. And developing nations that emphasize greater food self-reliance can retain precious foreign exchange and avoid the instability of international markets."

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Jack Sperbeck is a professor at the University of Minnesota. Halweil may be reached at (202) 452-1992, ext. 538, halweil@worldwatch.org. "Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market" costs $5 plus shipping and handling, and can be purchased through the Worldwatch web site: www.worldwatch.org.

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