Is it worth doing the leg work to track 'food miles'?

Mar 29, 2013

Here's a catchphrase someone who's been to a farmer's market is probably familiar with: "buy local." And for those who try and follow the mantra closely, you may also be familiar with "food miles," the notion of counting how far your strawberries traveled to land on top of your bowl of Cheerios.

But new research argues that if you're trying to improve your sustainability and reduce your carbon footprint, tracking food miles may not be worth the headache.

"When it comes to things you should be sweating, in terms of your biggest impact on the climate, food miles just happens to be one of those things that isn’t as important as others," says Jeff Deyette, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists who is the co-author of Cooler Smarter, a book on low-carbon living.

The notion of tracking food miles has been around for a few decades, first becoming popular in Europe.

The argument from Deyette and others is that how that apple was grown - use of pesticides, packaging, the farm's energy supply, etc. - all factor more into the apple's carbon footprint than whether it came from Washington state or New York state.

How exactly the food traveled is important, too. Airlifted African mangos are much less sustainable than crops delivered via barge, something those tiny produce stickers don't explain.

"The radius that your food comes from is not an ideal proxy for sustainability," says Sasha Lyuste, a sustainable food expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Buying from local farmers that are also doing really good practices are their farm is sort of the ideal," she says.

That doesn't mean buying local isn't still important for things like reducing urban sprawl, says Lyuste, who recommends getting to know your farmer as a good way to find out just how sustainable your food is.

The average dish travels about 1,500 miles from source to your supper table, Lyuste says.