Thinking in terms of “food miles” doesn’t tell the whole story of greenhouse gas emissions
Is local better? Well, let’s say it’s complicated… There are so many reasons to support local agriculture. Local produce is fresh, seasonal, and nutrient dense, and it allows us to connect as a community around the food we eat. Eating locally also supports small businesses and our local economies! The list goes on. But if we consider the miles that our food travels and how that impacts greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the story becomes more complex. Let’s take a look.
WHAT IS A LOCAVORE?
In 1972, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, a farm-to-table restaurant in Berkley, California. It gave customers the experience of eating locally sourced ingredients in a fine dining environment. What followed was a movement.
The term locavore took hold in California in the early 2000’s when chef/writer Jessica Prentice described members of a growing movement who wanted to consume foods locally as such. Becoming disillusioned with the industrial food system here in the U.S., we started to crave a meaningful connection to our food. We wanted to know where their food comes from, how it is grown, and how it impacts the environment. And rightfully so.
The agricultural sector in the U.S. accounts for approximately 1% of production. But it is responsible for nearly 10% of all GHG emissions. While CO2 is the primary pollutant in many industries, methane and nitrogen comprise the larger share of GHG emissions.
In the early 1990’s, Professor Tim Lang used the term “food mile” for the first time. This set in motion global awareness about the distance that our food travels and how it impacts greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
So much focus is placed on the distance that food travels to get onto our grocery store shelves. But we often overlook other factors that can have an even greater impact on GHG emissions.
We import from West Africa, so we want to know the effect we are having on the planet. To do that, we need to understand the many steps that factor into GHG emissions up and down the production chain.
Even though Yolélé is just one small player in the global supply chain, we think a lot about how our business practices impact the planet, as well as our communities at the points of supply and of sale.
Fonio is cultivated by smallholder farmers in West Africa, and it is shipped across the Atlantic and packaged here in the U.S. for people to enjoy.
We know that many of our customers care deeply about where their food comes from and value locally grown products. While we can’t (and don’t want to) grow fonio here in the U.S., we can address some of the questions that people have surrounding local eating within a larger global food system. So let’s start to unpack this…
WHEN LOCAL ISN’T BETTER
“Trains are 10 times more efficient at moving freight, ton for ton, than trucks are. So you could eat potatoes trucked in from 100 miles away, or potatoes shipped by rail from 1,000 miles away, and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their transport from farm to table would be roughly the same.”
According to the Worldwatch Institute, if we only look at the carbon emissions associated with the distance a food travels from farm to market, the mode of transportation (i.e. truck, freight train, ship) impacts GHG emissions immensely.
According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, efficiencies in ocean shipping have resulted in increased cargo size and reductions in CO2 emissions, making it the “most efficient mode of commercial transport.” Fonio travels a long way to get to market. However, on a cargo ship, fonio travels along with hundreds of thousands of tons of goods, rather than with just a few thousand pounds as it would on a truck.
Now let’s consider that transportation contributes only a small amount of emissions in comparison to other phases of production.
THE COMPLETE CYCLE
Instead of thinking in terms of “food miles,” we should be focusing on the complete “carbon footprint” of a product throughout its life-cycle. Currently, there is extensive research being done to figure out exactly where in the production process GHG emissions occur. Not surprisingly, the specific product type, region of origin, and supply chain, along with a host of other variables, greatly impact GHG.
On farm agricultural practices are intensive. Fossil fuel inputs associated with crop and animal cultivation, fertilizer production and distribution, and livestock management, as well as the clearing of land for agricultural activities all have an enormous impact on global emissions.
As an example: flowers grown in Kenya and shipped to England can produce a smaller carbon footprint than those imported from the neighboring Netherlands. How is that? Well, the heat necessary to grow flowers in greenhouses in the Netherlands is produced by fossil fuels. In Kenya, the sun supplies emission-free energy! In short, the proximity of a farm to the proverbial “table,” and the impact that it has on GHG emissions is vastly oversimplified in our public discourse.
As you can see, the issue is complicated. It requires us to think holistically about the impact that our foods have on the environment. It isn’t enough to only consider “food miles” when making environmentally informed food choices.
What is Yolélé doing and considering to make sure we are keeping our carbon footprint as low as possible?
- Fonio is well-suited to semi-arid climates, and allows farmers to use fewer carbon and nitrogen intensive inputs (fertilizers, equipment).
- Fonio grows in poor soil that doesn’t support most crops. Growing fonio helps keep ground covered with plant matter that absorbs CO2.
- Because fonio is primarily grown in kitchen gardens, using time-tested regenerative techniques, we believe these practices can and should be implemented in commercial fonio production as well.
- Fonio farmers plant cover crops and let the soil rest between growing cycles. This aids in carbon sequestration.
- We are always finding new ways to improve our methods so that we can limit crop waste on the fields and in processing facilities. If we improve efficiencies in our processing and farming practices, we will reduce food waste and make our fields more productive per hectare. A field that produces one ton of fonio in reality ought to produce two or three tons total if less is lost during harvest and processing.