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Food Travels Far to Reach Your Table

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 21, 2002 (ENS) - As families
travel across the United States next week to gather for the
Thanksgiving holiday, many will sit down to eat food that has traveled
even farther - between 1,500 and 2,500 miles (2,500 and 4,000
kilometers) from farm to table. A new study by the Worldwatch
Institute details the lengthy journeys that much of the nation's food
supply now takes, finding a growing separation between the sources
and destinations of American food.

The distance that food travels has grown by as much as 25 percent,
according to the report by the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental
and social policy research institute based in Washington DC. The nation's
reliance on a complex network of food shipments leaves the United
States vulnerable to supply disruptions, the group argues.

"The farther we ship food, the more vulnerable our food system
becomes," said Worldwatch research associate Brian Halweil, author
of "Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market."

"Many major cities in the U.S. have a limited supply of food on
hand," Halweil added. "That makes those cities highly vulnerable to
anything that suddenly restricts transportation, such as oil shortages
or acts of terrorism."

This vulnerability is not limited to the United States. The tonnage of
food shipped between countries has grown fourfold over the last four
decades, while the world's population has doubled. In the United
Kingdom, for example, food travels 50 percent farther than it did two
decades ago.

This reliance on long distance food damages rural economies, as
farmers and small food businesses become the most marginal link in
the sprawling food chain, says the Worldwatch report. Long distance
travel also creates numerous opportunities along the way for food
contamination, and requires the use of artificial additives and
preservatives to keep food from spoiling.

Food transportation also contributes to global warming, because
of the huge quantities of fuel used for transportation. A typical meal
bought from a conventional supermarket chain - including some
meat, grains, fruit and vegetables - consumes four to 17 times
more petroleum for transport than the same meal using local
ingredients.

"We are spending far more energy to get food to the table than the
energy we get from eating the food. A head of lettuce grown in the
Salinas Valley of California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to
Washington, D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy
in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives," Halweil
said.

While most economists believe that long distance food trade is
efficient because communities and nations can buy their food from the
lowest cost provider, studies from North America, Asia, and Africa
show that farm communities reap little benefit from their crops, and
often suffer as a result of freer trade in agricultural goods.

"The economic benefits of food trade are a myth," said Halweil. "The
big winners are agribusiness monopolies that ship, trade, and process
food. Agricultural policies, including the new [Bush administration
backed] farm bill, tend to favor factory farms, giant supermarkets,
and long distance trade, and cheap, subsidized fossil fuels encourage
long distance shipping. The big losers are the world's poor."

Farmers producing for export often go hungry as they sacrifice the use
of their land to feed foreign mouths, Halweil writes. Meanwhile, poor
urban dwellers in both developed and developing nations find themselves
living in neighborhoods without supermarkets, green grocers, or healthy
food choices.

"Of course, a certain amount of food trade is natural and beneficial.
But money spent on locally produced foods stays in the community
longer, creating jobs, supporting farmers, and preserving local
cuisines and crop varieties against the steamroller of culinary
imperialism," Halweil added. "And developing nations that emphasize
greater food self reliance can retain precious foreign exchange and
avoid the instability of international markets."

Halweil points to a vigorous, emerging local food movement that is
challenging both the wisdom and practice of long distance food
shipping.

"Massive meat recalls, the advent of genetically engineered food, and
other food safety crises have built interest in local food," he said.
"Rebuilding local food economies is the first genuine profit making
opportunity in farm country in years."

Communities that seek to meet their food needs locally will reap
benefits including a more diverse variety of regional crops, cheaper
food that avoids added costs from intermediate handlers and
shippers, and a boon for the local economy as money spent on food
goes to local growers and merchants. Of course, many consumers
will choose local produce just for the flavor.

Unlike supermarket tomatoes, which are often shipped green and
ripened artificially, these locally grown tomatoes ripened on the
vine. (USDA Photo by Bill Tarpenning)

"Locally grown food served fresh and in season has a definite taste
advantage," Halweil said. "It's harvested at the peak of ripeness and
doesn't have to be fumigated, refrigerated, or packaged for long
distance hauling and long shelf life."

In the United States, for example, more than half of all tomatoes are
harvested and shipped green, and then artificially ripened upon arrival
at their final destination.

Consumers now have a growing variety of local food providers to
choose from. The number of registered farmers' markets in the
United States has jumped from 300 in the mid-1970s and 1,755 in
1994 to more than 3,100 today. About three million people now visit
these markets each week, spending more than $1 billion each year.

Innovative restaurants, school cafeterias, caterers, hospitals, and
even supermarkets are beginning to offer fresh, seasonal foods from
local farmers and food businesses.

Consumers can promote local growers by choosing to buy
their produce and baked goods from farmers markets. (USDA
Photo by Bill Tarpenning)

North America now boasts more than a dozen local food policy
councils, which track changes in the local food system, lobby
for farmland protection, point citizens towards local food options,
and help create incentives for local food businesses.

But the most powerful force behind the growing local food market is
the consumer. The Worldwatch report offers several suggestions for
how consumers can help to promote local food systems, including:

· Learn what foods are in season in your area and try to build your
diet around them.
· Shop at a local farmers' market, or link up with your neighbors
and friends to start a subscription service featuring seasonal foods
from local growers
· Ask the manager or chef of your favorite restaurant how much of
the food on the menu is locally grown, and then encourage him or
her to buy food locally.
· Take a trip to a local farm to learn what it produces.
· Host a harvest party at your home or in your community that features
locally available and in season foods.
· Produce a local food directory that lists all the local food sources in
your area
· Buy extra quantities of your favorite fruit or vegetable when it is in
season and experiment with drying, canning, jamming, or otherwise
preserving it for a later date.
· Plant a garden and grow as much of your own food as possible.
· Speak to your local politician about forming a local food policy council.

For more information on the report, "Home Grown: The Case for
Local Food in a Global Market," visit the Worldwatch Institute at:
http://www.worldwatch.org/pubs/paper/163/orderpage.html

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2002. All Rights Reserved.

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