Food Miles Discussion

Hi all, 

Steve Groff's interesting (and correct) comment about tillage and CO2
release leads me to put in my two bits worth.  As usual in the real world,
no issue is ever as simple and black and white as we might perceive it or
wish it to be.  Some thoughts on food miles:

1.  I am not sure how  40 pickup loads of produce traveling to a farmers
market for a 200  mile round trip would compare to a single refrigerated
semi-load of  produce making a 3000  mile trip (then carrying some other
freight back home).  I suspect the difference in CO2 output  is not
dramatically different.

2. Certainly CO2 output (as well as methane) is a real contributor to the
green house warming.  However agriculture contributes VASTLY more through
soil tillage than through food transport.  

3. There are many reasons to consider shortening the food transport chain
and "eating locally",  but I doubt that CO2 release is one of them.  Most
reasons are sociological and pyschological....producer-consumer relations,
maintaining grenspace and local agricultural economy,  attaching a deeper
meaning to the food experience, etc.  Ecologically,  local food production
provides the opportunity to recycle nutrients and organic matter back to the
soils that produced the food, something that will probably never be feasible
for wheat grwon in Kansas and consumed in NYC.  However,  using sewage
sludge (containing the nutrients and organic wastes)  has its drawbacks, too
(especially on food crops).  Composting store-bought food wastes (not human
wastes, of course) in the backyard is a form of re-use, but not recycling.

4.  The health and dietary implications of eating locally are mixed. Greater
freshness vs less variety and greater susceptibility to local soil
deficiencies or toxicities (e.g. high  or low selenium, zinc, etc.).  I like
freshness, no dout about it.  I'd grow my own (I used to be an avide
gardener), but at the moment I live in a small house on a small urban lot
within bicycling distance to the University at which I work.  I feel this
helps reduce development pressures on local farmland.   I have great, huge
oak trees and azaleas, great free shade and low (no?) air conditioning
bills, but, alas, also no sunny spot for a veggie garden (I managed to find
a 4 ft x 8 ft patch!!). So I buy nearly all my veggies at farmers markets,
food co-ops and supermarkets.  Some of the produce is local, some is not.
But to be honest, I find (make?) time to shop only once in 7 to 10 days, so
by day 4 or 5, the freshness isn't too different among sources.  I bet this
pattern isn't too rare among US consumers.

5.  Obviously, some regions have tremendous competitive advantages in food
production because of soils and climate factors.  If people were to become
dependent on local food, the population map of the US would be very
different, indeed!   It is very  difficult and probably unwise to ignore
these competitive advantages.  Perhaps we should, as a nation, make far
greater efforts to preserve some of our prime ag lands (e.g. halt devlopment
on prime and unique farmlands in California, Lake effect areas, Florida,
etc.) --not very popular, politically, but necessary in the long run. 

These are just a few of the considerations to ponder (and act upon).  

Ray R. Weil
Professor of Soil Science
Dept. of Natural Resource Sciences & LA
1103 H.J. Patterson Hall
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

telephone: 301 405 1314
FAX:            301 314 9041
e-mail:  rw17@umail.umd.edu