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How far does your food travel?

By Keesia Wirt

DTN Commodities Editor

DES MOINES (DTN)--Consider this: much of the produce you buy at the grocery store has traveled farther than you did on your last vacation.

Although most of us live in agriculturally rich regions, much of our fresh produce is shipped in from other states and even other countries. A recent study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, IA, calculated just how far your salad greens journeyed before ending up on your dinner plate.

Locally grown produce travels an average of 56 miles from farm to point of sale, while the same types fruits and vegetables bought from conventional sources within the U.S. travel an average of 1,494 miles--a whopping 27 times farther, according to the study.

The researchers compared locally grown produce that was sold in 2001 as part of an "All-Iowa meals" project coordinated by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), said Rich Pirog, Leopold Center marketing and food systems program leader. Fresh fruits and vegetables from 34 Iowa farms were used to make the meals for 23 conferences in central Iowa.

"We wanted to know how the miles logged by Iowa fresh produce arriving at institutions compared to miles logged had this produce come from more conventional locations across the country," Pirog said. "We used the PFI data set and what we knew about fresh produce commerce in the Midwest to make our comparisons."

The calculations showed that mileage varied widely depending on the fruit or vegetable. Locally grown produce traveled from 20 miles for broccoli and sweet corn and up to 75 miles for potatoes. Meanwhile, the conventional produce traveled from 311 miles for pumpkins to 1,838 miles for carrots.

The average distance for locally grown produce to reach institutional markets was 56 miles, compared with conventional produce at 1,494 miles.

To put that into perspective, Pirog said the mileage for all 16 types of locally grown fruits and vegetables to reach market was 716 miles, about the distance from Des Moines, IA, to Denver, CO. The same conventionally bought fruits and vegetables shipped in from other states would travel 25,301 miles, which is basically a trip around the world.

"As you can see, there's a stark difference between the two," Pirog said.

Does Distance Matter?

Why does food mileage matter? As long as your apple tastes good, should you care whether it came from Washington State or the family orchard down the road?

Yes, say advocates for the local food system movement, you should care. When countries rely on faraway food sources, they make themselves more vulnerable to problems and shortages, says the public interest group Worldwatch Institute.

"The farther we ship food, the more vulnerable our food system becomes," said Worldwatch research associate Brian Halweil in a news release. "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."

Relying on long-distance foods also damages rural economies. Farmers and small food businesses become the most marginal link in the sprawling food chain, Worldwatch Institute stated. Of course there's also the environmental concerns--transporting a state of Washington apple to Iowa uses a lot of fossil fuel and contributes to global warming.

"We are spending far more energy to get food to the table than the energy we get from eating the food," Halweil said in the news release. "A head of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to Washington, DC, requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives."

According to Worldwatch, surveys have shown that a locally grown meal of meat, grain, fruits and vegetables uses four to 17 times less petroleum in transport than the same meal bought from the conventional food chain.

Halweil said the economic benefits of food trade are a myth. He said most economists believe that long-distance food trade is efficient because communities and nations can buy their food from the lowest-cost provider. However, he said studies from North America, Asia and Africa show farm communities do not benefit, and often suffer as a result of freer trade in agricultural goods.

"The big winners are agribusiness monopolies that ship, trade and process food," he said, in the news release. "Agricultural policies, including the new farm bill, tend to favor factory farms, giant supermarkets and long-distance trade...The big losers are the world's poor."

There is an emerging local food movement that is challenging the long-distance food system. Halweil said the movement has gained popularity in light of the recent large meat recalls, genetically engineered food debates and other food safety issues.

He cites the increase in farmers' markets as proof that consumers will support locally grown products. In the mid-1970s, there were about 300 farmers' markets in the U.S. There are now more than 3,200. Consumers, restaurants, schools and hospitals are all buying fresh, local foods grown by family farmers.

"Rebuilding local food economies is the first genuine profit-making opportunity in farm country in years," he said in the news release.

For a copy of the report, "Checking the Food Odometer: Comparing Food Miles for Local Versus Conventional Produce Sales to Iowa Institutions," contact the Leopold Center at 515-294-3711, or go to the Center's website:

For more information about the Worldwatch Institute, go to its web site at

To contact Keesia Wirt, please e-mail her at

Date: 7/22/03


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