Transporting Food Can Cost the Earth
When it comes to food, buying local has been the mantra of environmental groups for years. After all, it's pretty easy to conclude that transporting fruits and vegetables from one side of the globe to the other isn't very good for the planet.
Now, a comprehensive new analysis of the true costs of the way we produce, purchase and consume food has found that while international transport of food does have an impact, when it comes to environmental damage, the big culprit is domestic transportation.
Researchers in the United Kingdom used data from previous studies to estimate the hidden costs of conventional agriculture in that country. These costs include things like government subsidies; exhaust pollution from transport trucks, railroads and car travel; heat-trapping emissions that cause global warming; and infrastructure, such as roads.
Their results, published in the journal Food Policy, show that international ship and air travel currently contribute a relatively miniscule amount to the overall hidden costs of our food. By far, domestic transportation from the farm to the retailer and then from the shop to the consumer's home has the greatest impact -- accounting for nearly half of the hidden costs.
Raw distance, it turns out, is not always the deciding factor in determining the adverse effects of transportation. Shipping by water, researchers note, has lower impact than shipping by road. Transport by air, on the other hand, has the greatest impact of all. Right now, hidden costs for the international transport of food are relatively low because much of this food is shipped by boat, or in the cargo holds of passenger planes. If we start to ship food by air more often, these costs could increase dramatically.
But if domestic transportation costs in a country as small as the U.K. are high, then the hidden costs of food transportation in Canada may be much higher. Consider a box of cereal, for example, which may start with wheat from the Prairies, transported to Ontario for processing with other ingredients from all over the country, put into a box made in Quebec and then transported to British Columbia for retail sales, where it will be picked up by a consumer driving an SUV.
Because of our reliance on fossil fuels for transportation needs, each of these stages has hidden costs. In fact, even if we buy local food, but all of us drive to the store to pick it up, there are increased hidden costs.
So, does this mean big-box chains that sell in huge quantities may unintentionally help the environment by reducing the number of trips taken to purchase groceries? According to the research, that doesn't appear to be the case. Consumers in the U.K. are actually making more grocery shopping trips and driving greater distances to make them than they were 20 years ago -- before the rise of the megamart.
Another hidden cost of our food is taxpayer-funded government subsidies that prop up unsustainable agricultural practices. Switching to organic agriculture, the researchers conclude, would lead to big benefits in terms of overall costs to society. Of course, the benefits of organic agriculture in terms of environmental impact are greatly reduced if the food has to travel by road a great distance to reach the consumer.
So what food-shopping patterns will yield the most benefit to the environment and society? Looking at the data, walking, biking or taking public transit to buy organic, locally grown (within 20km) food would be the best choice. Grocery delivery services also help a great deal by reducing the overall number of vehicle trips. Even choosing a fuel-efficient vehicle and reducing the number of trips helps.
Unfortunately, suburban sprawl is rapidly eating up some of Canada's best farmland - which also happens to be located near urban centers. For our food to be sustainable, governments at all levels must work to curb sprawl and support local food systems.