Factoring in Food Miles: What To Know About Shopping Locally

Every week, Ranjana Hans walks through a long hallway leading to a large kitchen where she makes her bright, orange-tinted products and packages them inside clear bottles with yellow labels and golden caps.

Hans, who owns and operates Raw Roots Turmeric, is preparing to sell products like paste and syrup at Columbia Farmers Market, which are grown from turmeric plants in her home garden.

“I was having a strong pain in my knee… and then I just started using this fresh turmeric,” Hans said. “I started to feel and see the difference in my body and wanted to share this experience with people in my community,” she continued, explaining what inspired her businesses.

A plant-based product like turmeric, which has extreme health benefits as an anti-inflammatory and nutritional supplement, is usually offered in grocery stores. Hans’ customers, however, are provided an experience where they can learn directly about the product that will sit on their refrigerator shelves.

Sustainability practices comprise the environment, the economy and social equity, which is why local markets that support businesses that involve all these elements, like Hans’, are key. 

But whether or not food miles, defined as the carbon cost of transporting food, is one of the most important environmental factors when it comes to shopping locally is debated by experts. Although food miles factor into how sustainable a product is, the carbon cost of producing food can be even more hefty.

The health benefits associated with shopping locally are widely known, such as how local produce is typically fresher and retains a lot of nutrients. However, the connection between eating locally and sustainability isn’t as clear. 

This fogginess is attributed to the ways that sustainability is measured.

Sustainability is determined by evaluating the social, environmental and economic principles of a particular method’s performance. A common measurement of sustainability is assessing the environmental impact of a new program compared to an existing one, but there are still issues in deciding the universal metrics of sustainability measurement

Dr. Kattesh V. Katti, a professor of radiology and physics at the University of Missouri who studies nanoparticles and is a customer of Hans’, noted that a large part of her products’ appeal is the fact that they are organically homegrown.

Cities throughout the state are also working to share more resources with local businesses on how they can be more sustainable. For example, the city of Creve Coeur, developed the Green Business Program, which offers sustainability assessments and resources like recycling training to local businesses.

There is no way to accurately calculate the distance that food has traveled unless the food was bought at a local market. Although labels contain the product’s country of origin, the mode of transportation is what’s most important when it comes to calculating the carbon footprint generated by the miles traveled. 

Carrying food by cargo typically has less of an environmental impact than by plane, which is where some of the issues around sustainability are centered.

It is estimated that carrying one ton of food by plane is 50-70 times more carbon-intensive than carrying the same amount of food by cargo ship. But there are researchers in the environmental community that believe that focusing on food miles is a poor measure of sustainability

This assessment is rooted in the idea that all these components can vary based on which factor that ties into how sustainable a product is matters most.

For example, it has been suggested that growing certain vegetables in greenhouses can have a higher carbon footprint than importing those same vegetables. A recent study found that even when fruits like tomatoes are grown in British greenhouses, they have a higher carbon footprint than tomatoes imported from Spain, which has the perfect climate for growing tomatoes. That is why places like the Center for Food Safety suggest buying not only locally, but in-season produce.

For example, in Missouri green beans are in season and can be found at the Columbia Farmers Market through various vendors.

The Office of Sustainability at Harvard University notes similar ideas about how seasonal changes like the weather play a pivotal role in the overall sustainability of a product. Researchers state that “looking exclusively at carbon footprints neglects other important issues like water usage and farmer rights but it is nonetheless a valuable metric.”

It is not that buying food from local vendors like farmers markets is better or worse than shopping at grocery stores, but understanding that buying local food plays an important role in local economies and providing healthier options can contribute to the overall sustainability of a product.

Consumers have to decide which local products support their values and also have the health properties that they seek.

Values and health are what motivates Bonnie Conley to continue being a loyal customer of Hans’ at the local farmers market.

“I was introduced to her products at the farmers market, and I learned about all the health benefits associated with using turmeric,” Conley said. “I love being able to support local businesses in that process.”

Fairriona Magee is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism specializing in health and environmental journalism.

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