A growing awareness of issues that affect our environment and our economy have prompted many Americans to take a closer look at our lifestyles to see if we can find better ways to maintain resources and lighten our burden on the planet.
Decisions we make about food offer an easy place to start. After all, we all eat, and we live in age of enormous variety and endless options regarding the food we choose. We also live an age of enormous energy consumption, and in the U.S., most of the energy we expend on electricity and transportation comes from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas. These are all “fossil fuels,” nonrenewable energy sources derived from the earth.
Fossil fuel resources are limited, and our growing dependence on fuel provided by other countries brings up complex issues regarding our relationship to the world in which we live. When burned, fossil fuels generate toxic by-products that build up in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. These by-products affect both our health as individuals and the health of the environment. For a host of reasons, independence from fossil fuels can lead to a safer and healthier world for all of us.
Local Food: How the Decision to Eat Local Foods Can Make Our Resources Last
So, what does local food have to do with fossil fuels? The food industry represents one of the most significant consumers of energy resources in the U.S. Huge amounts of fossil fuel are burned in the harvesting, processing and transportation of food from one location to another. The chemicals used to create fertilizers and pesticides are also manufactured using large amounts of fuel resources.
However, a study conducted in 2002 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that all the fossil fuels poured into the food system generate relatively small returns. The study found that the creation of one calorie of edible food takes, on average, about three calories of energy to produce. That number rises significantly for some extremely energy-inefficient foods, like grain-fed beef, which requires about 35 calories to produce a single edible calorie of usable food. The Johns Hopkins study did not account for energy used on food transportation. Studies that add shipping into the equation estimate an average of about eight calories required to produce one calorie of food in the U.S.
Making the Choice to Eat Local Food
Our personal decisions about the food we buy and eat can combat this imbalance. We may not be able to change the way the rest of the world moves and eats, but with a little attention, it’s possible to reconcile the energy balance in our own households. The most dramatic way to cut back on the fuel used to produce each calorie of food on our tables is twofold: the first involves chemicals, and the second involves transportation.
Choosing organic produce and cutting back on meat can significantly reduce the amount of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics used in the creation of a meal. And the decision to eat local food can reduce the petrochemicals used to transport the meal from the farm to the table. Local food grown within 100 miles of our own store or farmers market can reduce the cost of a dinner, both in terms of money spent by all those who handled the food on its journey, and in terms of the fuel used to carry it by truck, plane or boat from across the country or overseas.