Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Food Routing: Local or HOV?

Foodies (like me!) love fresh produce, picked at its peak. We love gardening, but we also love the next best thing, farmers markets. While supporting local businesses, we appreciate the eye contact, small talk, and regular relationships we develop. This love affair may have prompted almost a 4-fold increase in operating U.S. Farmer’s Markets from 1,755 in 1994 to 6,132 in 2010 (USDA-AMS Marketing Services Division, 2010).

We may have heard that buying locally-produced food and buying produce in season are ways to be more environmentally-friendly consumers. However, the assumption that going Green means shopping at farmers markets instead of grocery stores, or buying products from people that use “rustic” vs. “factory”-farm practices, just isn’t true.

We all know carpooling cuts down on fuel expenditures per person. More accomplishment on fewer running motors is a good thing. More food production on fewer body frames or more food transported on fewer, larger vehicles makes production and transportation per unit of food less environmentally costly. A small-scale, perhaps local, operation would use a pickup truck to transport just over a thousand dozen eggs to a retail outlet. A large-scale operation, presumably much farther away from a city, would use a 6-axle, refrigerated tractor-trailer to transport tens of thousands of dozens to a retail outlet. One might compare three egg cartons: one from a local farm, one from the farmers market (from a small farm 138 miles away), and one that came from a few states over, 1,291 miles away from the grocery store. You picked one up at the local farm 44 miles away, another at the farmers market 11 miles from home, and the other is from a grocery store 2.4 miles away. You were driving a car that gets 21 mpg, while the farm truck gets 18 and the tractor-trailer gets 5.5 mpg. Which of the three systems requires the most fuel to transport food?
Conveniently, Dr. Jude Capper and others from Washington State University figured this all out for her presentation, entitled “Demystifying the Environmental Sustainability of Food Production” at the Cornell Nutrition Conference for Food Manufacturers, 2009. Here were the results:

Fuel expenditure per dozen eggs:

1.      Local farm: 2.4 gallons, car
2.      Farmers’ market: 0.63 gallons (0.01, farm truck + 0.62, car)
3.      Farmers’ market with hybrid vehicles: 0.40 gallons (0.01, farm truck + 0.39, hybrid car)
4.      Grocery store: 0.14 gallons, (0.01, tractor-trailer + 0.13 personal auto)
It’s quite shocking that the grocery store model presents the most fuel-efficient choice of the four! In following the model of Capper et al. (2009), it seems that filling your car with groceries from the grocery store to reduce trips, or walking/biking to the grocery store or farmers’ market would clearly present options that expend the least fuel. No more guilt trips to the grocery store, literally! What do you Think?

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