THE HIDDEN COST OF FOOD

(The Lexington Minuteman, June 8, 2006)


Last week I went to the grocery store to do my shopping. I bought mangoes from Peru, avocados from Mexico, daffodils from Ireland, cheese from Spain, coffee from Costa Rica, and of course, lettuce, tangelos, and kiwi from California. All combined, our food traveled over 17,000 miles to reach our table. It is an amazing feat of modern technology that we have access to foods from all over the world, any time of the year. But this abundance of well-traveled food is based upon the integrity of global oil production, refining and delivery.


We tend to think of global warming and energy consumption of families in terms of home use, autos and large appliances. But according to Swedish scientist Gunther Folke “those energy uses are far smaller than the energy used by the food system needed to support the family”. Our food production system consumes 17% of all fossil fuels used in the US, including uses for inorganic fertilizer, powering field machinery, transportation of raw material, irrigation, raising livestock, crop drying, and pesticide production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food and agricultural products grown in the US are transported 566 billion ton-miles within US borders each year. Worldwide 20% of all greenhouse gases come from current agricultural practices. A bag of potatoes weighing 5 lbs traveling 2448 miles from Italy to London is responsible for the emission of 1.7 lbs of carbon dioxide, while 1 lb. of asparagus traveling 7,800 miles from Chile to New York requires 73 lbs of fuel energy and releases 4.7 lbs of carbon dioxide. Not only is our food supply dependent on a finite resource but it is also contributing to global warming through the release of greenhouse gases from the energy required to produce and deliver it to our tables. And global warming in turn is disrupting the very climatic processes on which agriculture depends.


Our agricultural system is an ad hoc system that is treated as a commodity rather than a necessity. California grown lettuce is exported to Mexico while Mexican grown lettuce is imported into this country. California grown brussel sprouts are exported to Canada while brussel sprouts from Belgium and Mexico are imported into the US. California almonds are exported to Italy, while Italian grown almonds are imported back into the US. This situation seems even more irrational when you look at the amount of energy required to produce our food compared to the energy we get from the food. 10 energy units are spent for every unit of food on our dinner table, with the figure rising as high as 1,000 energy units for every energy unit of processed food, according to Cornell University’s David Pimentel.


All of this may seem daunting, but there are simple steps that we as consumers can take to reduce energy use in food production:


Buy locally grown food. Shop at farmers’ markets, farm stands, or Community Supported Agriculture operations; and request locally grown food from grocery stores. The average bite of food in the US travels over 1,300 miles to reach our mouths. Small scale, less mechanized, more biodiverse organic farming operations have been shown to use 60% less fossil fuel per unit of food than conventional industrial farms. Gunther Folke says a neighborhood farm is worth far more in conserved energy use than half a meter extra insulation on your house.


Buy organic. Organic agriculture uses less fossil fuel than conventional agriculture since chemical pesticides and fertilizers aren’t allowed. A study in the UK showed that energy savings in organic agriculture were an average of 42%, while milk production from organic systems was 5 times more energy efficient than conventional systems on a per animal basis.


Plant a vegetable garden.


Avoid purchasing processed or frozen food. Both use far more energy than fresh food. Frozen peas require 150% more energy that fresh peas due to processing and refrigeration.


Reduce red meat consumption. Meat production uses far more energy and water than plant food production.


Pressure our governments to develop a regional food system that can meet the demands of the local area by supporting small, family owned farms. 90% of agricultural subsidies benefit corporations while 500 family farms close down every week in the US. Our local farms should be treated as national treasures that will be needed to feed our descendents for as long as there is life on earth.


According to Wendell Berry, farmer, poet and environmentalist, “a revolt of local small producers and local consumers against the global industrialism of the corporations” needs to take place in order to reverse the damage done to the land and local economies by world trade. Speaking from the birthplace of the American Revolution, let this new revolution begin. Here in Lexington, each of us can do our part by shopping our own Lexington Farmers' Market which will open this year on June 13th on the corner of Massachusetts and Fletcher Avenues. The market will be open on Tuesdays from 2 to 6:30 p.m. and will feature the best locally grown food that New England has to offer. See you there.


This week’s column is guest authored by Sonia DeMarta of The Lexington Farmers Market.

Brought to you by Lexington Global Warming Action Coalition. Contact us at www.lexgwac.org