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What's on Your Plate and How Far Did It Travel to Get There?

July 23, 2014
Earlier this month, we published a blog about the water that is consumed in the production of food.  This is the promised follow-up that focuses on the transportation of food and the sharp increase in miles that our produce and food products travel to get to market and to our kitchen table. 
The Center for Environmental Education (CEE), an international clearinghouse and resource group that has been around for over twenty-five years, started our trek across the continental US and beyond to follow the path of moving  food to the grocery store.  This is a good starting point for understanding the concept of “food miles” and the role it plays in contributing to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from the various modes of transportation that are used to transport fresh and processed foods, including frozen food and even organic food.
The CEE site linked up with the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA), a program that operates under an agreement with the US Department of Agriculture and provides information and assistance on sustainable agriculture.  That site has a wealth of information.  It summarizes studies and produces reports on various aspects of food production and its relationship to greenhouse gas emissions.  For example, I was surprised to learn that processed food travels an average 1,300 miles to get to market.  Organic food products can travel even farther, and one study of the Chicago market showed that fresh produce traveled 1500 miles.  The miles traveled have increased steadily in the past fifty years.
Why has this happened?  To a large extent, it’s a matter of consumer expectations for consistent produce year round and exotic ingredients.  Also, as corporate farming has overtaken small farms, the suppliers for food have declined and producers can deliver their products across the country.  Also, Americans have shown an increased attraction to packaged foods and frozen foods, making meal preparation easier and faster.  ATTRA published a report, “Food Miles:  Background and Marketing”, which makes for fascinating reading on the complexities of the shifts in our food system, eating habits, and the impact of food miles.  Transportation is one of the two biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, but interestingly, personal transportation takes a second to the average American’s annual amount of energy used in the consumption of food.  Alas, without change, the energy needed for our food system is insatiable. 
This is a complex subject and the studies challenge some of our conventional thinking.  So GWG will continue this next week when we discuss what is being done and how consumer choices can make a difference. 

Why does it matter to green teams?  The Department of Energy’s mantra that employees bring their green to work is one good reason.  Green teams play a vital role in disseminating information on a wide array of topics outside the walls of typical operational matters related to building energy consumption, recycling, office paper, and procurement, etc.  By expanding the sphere of green topics, we connect with people where it matters and that can produce results in the office by generating a wider appreciation for the effect each of us can have in reducing our carbon footprint, enjoying a healthier and longer life, and ensuring a future for our children where they have the blessings of a stable and supportive environment.  Read more.

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