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Old 12-12-2009, 05:52 PM   #41
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Wow--that's an interesting figure. A gallon of diesel fuel contains 139,000 BTU, so moving that head of lettuce by truck used .022 gallons, or about 6 tablespoons of fuel. At today's fuel price, that's about 6 cents. Even if diesel did go to $15/gallon, that would cost about 30 cents/head for the fuel to move it across the country.
So the Maine head of lettuce would cost the equivalent of 1.8 cents.

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Now, if you put it on a train instead for the majority of the trip, you'd burn less than 1/2 of the fuel.
I definitely want my chocolate to come by train though so it's GHG impact is as small as possible. I can't grow chocolate in my cold frame.

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No wonder it makes sense to grow things where they grow best.
No doubt lettuce grows well in California, since they apparently grow a lot of it there. But it doesn't necessarily "grow best" in just California. It's occurred to me that non-gardeners on this thread may not be aware that lettuce is a cool-weather crop. Lettuce bolts (goes to seed) and turns bitter rather readily at the first sign of heat. Spinach is even more sensitive to heat, but boy is it happy in my cold frame right now. It's one of the true cold weather crops.

Anyhoo, this whole thread started with a discussion of cap and trade, meaning the discussion should revolve around the GHG emissions of the shipped lettuce. With the figures at hand, the Maine head has fewer GHG emissions than the shipped California head.
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Old 12-12-2009, 06:02 PM   #42
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Anyhoo, this whole thread started with a discussion of cap and trade, meaning the discussion should revolve around the GHG emissions of the shipped lettuce. With the figures at hand, the Maine head has fewer GHG emissions than the shipped California head.
Yes, and it's interesting to see the numbers. The takeaway point (for me) is that, because fuel costs are apparently such a tiny part of the total price of produce, we'd need to have very high fuel taxes/carbon taxes/GHG C&T "prices" in order to cause a change in behavior that lowers the amount of fuel burned with regard to this commodity. I'm sure the situation would be different for products/services with higher embodied energy content (e.g. airplane tickets/car prices).
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Old 12-12-2009, 06:41 PM   #43
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Of course, there's also fuel for the tractors, and whatever powers those big irrigation rigs that you see roaming across the fields in California. Coleman's calculations just looked at the major element that would be necessary to produce lettuce in the spring and fall in Maine (a plastic covered greenhouse) vs. having it shipped in from California.
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Old 12-12-2009, 07:11 PM   #44
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Of course, there's also fuel for the tractors, and whatever powers those big irrigation rigs that you see roaming across the fields in California. Coleman's calculations just looked at the major element that would be necessary to produce lettuce in the spring and fall in Maine (a plastic covered greenhouse) vs. having it shipped in from California.
What powers the tractors in Maine? Or are we going to mules for plowing and "nightsoil" for fertilizer?

Lettuce, greens, and root crops are a fairly small part of the American diet. I think if we start looking at growing a realistic volume of grains in Maine (for direct consumption and animal feed) this whole thing falls apart fairly rapidly. Not that gardening isn't a good hobby--wholesome and rewarding. But if we're talking about actually providing enough calories, protein, and the food people want to eat for everyone in the US, I don't think local production on a large scale is going be very important.
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Old 12-12-2009, 07:33 PM   #45
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What powers the tractors in Maine? Or are we going to mules for plowing and "nightsoil" for fertilizer?

Lettuce, greens, and root crops are a fairly small part of the American diet. I think if we start looking at growing a realistic volume of grains in Maine (for direct consumption and animal feed) this whole thing falls apart fairly rapidly. Not that gardening isn't a good hobby--wholesome and rewarding. But if we're talking about actually providing enough calories, protein, and the food people want to eat for everyone in the US, I don't think local production on a large scale is going be very important.

I have been interested the community supported agriculture for a while. Although as is typical with most of these green idea, the economics aren't very good. I like to support local farmers, but I suspect Sam is right other than for us upper middle class yuppie type who want to eat "healthier" and feel morally superior, it isn't going to be a major source of food for most Americans.

Still I can't help but shake my head, that I living in place with 365 day growing season, buy tomatoes from California which have to be shipped 2500 mile by boat, even in the winter time. Because they are 1/3 the price at Costco than the farmers market, and while the beefsteak tomatoes are much better locally grown there isn't much difference between cherry and grape tomatoes.
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Old 12-12-2009, 07:59 PM   #46
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What powers the tractors in Maine? Or are we going to mules for plowing and "nightsoil" for fertilizer?
One of the difficulties here is that we're comparing big industrial farms with small market growers. Coleman is a small organic farmer. He can't feed as many people with his farm as one of the big industrial farms can, but many market growers in a given area could. At any rate, he doesn't use a tractor, he uses a tiller and does minimal tilling at that. (No till methods actually improve plant growth once the soil has been restored to decent fertility with ample organic matter.) Fertilizers are tilled autumn leaves, compost, and animal manures. (Cheap stuff.)

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But if we're talking about actually providing enough calories, protein, and the food people want to eat for everyone in the US, I don't think local production on a large scale is going be very important.
I think calories and protein are less problematic than "the food people want to eat". As long as most people want out of season, imported foods on a daily basis then you're probably right. Won't work.
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Old 12-12-2009, 08:15 PM   #47
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other than for us upper middle class yuppie type who want to eat "healthier" and feel morally superior, it isn't going to be a major source of food for most Americans.
Happily though, community gardens - especially in inner city areas - are a growing trend.

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Because they are 1/3 the price at Costco than the farmers market, and while the beefsteak tomatoes are much better locally grown there isn't much difference between cherry and grape tomatoes.
Here's the odd thing. My food costs have gone down as I've focused more on eating from the garden (as much as possible) and eating what I buy from the farmer's market. Turns out it's less expensive to buy the more expensive local stuff if I eat it all, than to buy the cheaper stuff and throw it away. (I know, duh, right? ) I've always bought vegetables and fruit at the supermarket, but didn't eat that much of it. Most of it would get thrown out. Now that I'm trying to eat the fresher, local food (garden or farmer's market), it tastes so much better I actually eat all that I buy. So I'm saving quite a lot of money, even though I'm eating more expensive food. Go figure.

I have read that Americans throw out half the food they buy.
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Old 12-12-2009, 09:51 PM   #48
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I think calories and protein are less problematic than "the food people want to eat". As long as most people want out of season, imported foods on a daily basis then you're probably right. Won't work.
While I share samclem's skepticism of these techniques for large scale use, I think there are some positive opportunities here. Rather than the 'broad brush' of 'local is better' (which is not always true), it would be good if someone would identify good (efficient and good tasting/healthy) local substitutes for stuff we default to just out of familiarity. Maybe for some of the season, a certain local green would be better than the year round shipping of something else? Maybe something else in another area? rinse, repeat where appropriate. I don't want to give up salads in winter, but I'm open to substitutes. I don't have to have the same greens/veggies all year round, all the time.

I'd like to see hguyw start a new thread specifically on winter gardening techniques. Not that it will save the planet, but it might be a nice and economical and healthy hobby for some of us. Since we added a sunny three-season room to our house, we've put our herbs in containers, and bring the cold tolerant ones in for the winter. It's really nice to have fresh herbs all year round, costs us nothing (the herbs are perennial, and the parsley reseeds itself with a little attention). I'd consider expanding this to some other greens/veggies (I'll also look into the book that was referenced), and would love to hear of hguyw's successes.

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Old 12-12-2009, 10:25 PM   #49
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Yes, and it's interesting to see the numbers. The takeaway point (for me) is that, because fuel costs are apparently such a tiny part of the total price of produce, we'd need to have very high fuel taxes/carbon taxes/GHG C&T "prices" in order to cause a change in behavior that lowers the amount of fuel burned with regard to this commodity.
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Wow--that's an interesting figure. A gallon of diesel fuel contains 139,000 BTU, so moving that head of lettuce by truck used .022 gallons, or about 6 tablespoons of fuel. At today's fuel price, that's about 6 cents. Even if diesel did go to $15/gallon, that would cost about 30 cents/head for the fuel to move it across the country.

Now, if you put it on a train instead for the majority of the trip, you'd burn less than 1/2 of the fuel.
Wow - I've always figured that raising the price of fossil fuel through taxes would be the way drive more "correct" behavior (however we want to define that). But certainly, $15 diesel would be a real strain, and if that only increased lettuce by ~ 24 cents (less for rail travel), well heck, that isn't going to change people's behaviors much.

Buy local sounds attractive on the surface, but I always thought that if it made so much sense, it would already be happening. These numbers seem to back up why it isn't.

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Old 12-13-2009, 09:58 AM   #50
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Wow - I've always figured that raising the price of fossil fuel through taxes would be the way drive more "correct" behavior (however we want to define that). But certainly, $15 diesel would be a real strain, and if that only increased lettuce by ~ 24 cents (less for rail travel), well heck, that isn't going to change people's behaviors much.

Buy local sounds attractive on the surface, but I always thought that if it made so much sense, it would already be happening. These numbers seem to back up why it isn't.

-ERD50
Obviously there's much more that goes into the price of a head of lettuce than just cost of diesel to ship it from the left coast to the right coast. If diesel did go to $15 does anybody really believe that the price of a head of lettuce would only increase by a quarter? I don't. I would expect to see lettuce at least double if not triple in price.

Leaving all that aside, if I buy a head of California lettuce for, say, $1.59 at my local Wal-Mart Supercenter, not only am I getting produce that's probably close to a week old, much less of the money I pay actually stays in my area. A small percentage goes to pay the checkout gal and the stockboy, but I bet the bulk of it goes immediately to corporate HQ in Bentonville and from there it's distributed to the producers and all the middlemen that brought that head of lettuce to my store. That lettuce was so old by the time I got it, it didn't have much shelf life left and I ended up throwing half of it out. So, how "cheap" was my lettuce, really?

When I go to my farmer's market and buy directly from the small grower who lives 15 miles away - let's say $2.50 for a head ...the entire amount I pay goes directly to the person who grew it. It might then leave the area, or it might circulate locally for some time before leaving. But at least the person who grew the food gets a decent price ("living wage") for her work. And because her lettuce was only hours old when I bought it, it lasted long enough in my fridge for me to use it all before it turned slimy. So I get 4 servings for my $2.50 vs. 2 servings for $1.59. On a per serving basis, the California lettuce is more expensive for me.

And buying local is already happening.
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Old 12-13-2009, 10:28 AM   #51
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I'd like to see hguyw start a new thread specifically on winter gardening techniques. -ERD50
I've started a new 'Winter Gardening' thread in the 'Other Topics' forum.

Winter Gardening
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Old 12-13-2009, 10:30 AM   #52
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Fertilizers are tilled autumn leaves, compost, and animal manures. (Cheap stuff.)
These fertilizers (and no-till growing, etc) do seem cheap at first. No chemicals to buy, fewer tractors, etc. But to someone engaged in efficient agriculture (i.e. optimizing the value of the food produced for the resources used (water, labor, real estate value, etc)), these techniques are very inefficient. If these techniques were truly cheap, then big growers would be using them. It takes a lot of land, time, and handling to turn leaves into good compost.

There was a time when fewer chemicals and mechanized aids were used in farming in the US. We could go back to that. Get away from all the chemicals, GMO seeds, etc. That's how we did things in 1870, when 70-80% of the US population was engaged in agriculture. Today it is 2-3%.
From the USDA:
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During the same period [1950-1997], farm production increased from one farmer supporting the food needs of 15.5 persons in 1950 to one farmer supporting 100 persons in 1990. By 1997, one farmer supported the food needs of almost 140 U.S. citizens.
Lots of the increased efficiency on farms came from consolidation (the sale of many family farms and consolidation into larger industrial operations). We can long for a back-to-the-earth future of local agriculture and simpler ways, but if we want to go there we'll need to find millions of people who want to be farmers and also be willing to pay much more for food. This might be fine for many people (food is a relatively minor expense for most Americans), but folks living in/near poverty would probably still want to buy that food that costs 1/3 as much.

This is not to knock organic gardening--it is a fun hobby. But unless everyone reads and believes "The Omnivore's Dilemma," I agree with you that there's not going to be substantial change.
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Old 12-13-2009, 11:43 AM   #53
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From the USDA:
Lots of the increased efficiency on farms came from consolidation (the sale of many family farms and consolidation into larger industrial operations). We can long for a back-to-the-earth future of local agriculture and simpler ways, but if we want to go there we'll need to find millions of people who want to be farmers and also be willing to pay much more for food. This might be fine for many people (food is a relatively minor expense for most Americans), but folks living in/near poverty would probably still want to buy that food that costs 1/3 as much.
I would expect nothing less from the USDA. The current model for "efficient" farming evolved because of seemingly unlimited, cheap fossil fuels and huge government subsidies so Americans could enjoy their Pop Tarts and Go-Gurts and week-old lettuce as a "minor" expense. While I don't subscribe to the catastrophic doom and gloom scenarios often predicted as a result of peak oil, I do believe the cheap, high-quality, easy to extract and refine oil is about gone. I think we're at the entry of a new era of diminishing resources, including oil, which will slowly, but relentlessly increase prices at all levels of food production and fundamentally change the way in which the world gets fed. I'm not sure what folks living in/near poverty will do as a result although I'm sure the government will try to keep those subsidies up with borrowed Chinese funds for the forseeable future. Elsewhere in the world I expect to see increasing genocide and wars over food shortages. (A few more screw-ups like the failure of Monsanto's GMO corn to produce kernels certainly won't help.)

From ATTRA: "However, if the organic matter is allowed to degrade and lose nitrogen, purchased fertilizer will be necessary to prop up crop yields." Most industrial farmland soils are so depleted at this point they can grow nothing without the massive inputs of artificial fertilizers. When these become cost prohibitive (and I believe they will at some point), what then?

Personally, I don't believe that the only way to feed humanity is through massive, government subsidized, corporate agriculture. I think a growing number of Americans are starting to figure this out as well. (Corporate ag's not going to go away anytime soon.) The solution in the coming decades will evolve out of necessity but my money's on a different model, likely something that combines a lot more home gardening, the return of small family farms that serve their surrounding regions, and the continuation of corporate farming at some level to provide staple grains.
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Old 12-13-2009, 12:58 PM   #54
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Ironically, I just discovered a series of videos on YouTube that touches on a lot of the issues we've been discussing here. I will start a new thread under 'Other Topics'.
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Old 12-13-2009, 01:58 PM   #55
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my Dad grew up in Hepburn, Sask.

speaking of cold, if my neices boyfriend gets into the RCMP, they will have to go to Nunevut for 3 years

the good thing about serious cold is that you can play hockey, skate, snowmobile, ski, ice fish and so on

you can't really do anything with a wishy washy Toronto winter

by the way, you can pick up lots in SW Florida for as low as 3k
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Old 12-14-2009, 04:28 PM   #56
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Pretty interesting summary. I agree with some points, probably don't know enough to agree or disagree with others, but food for thought.

They make the point that samclem brought out - that those with a history of polluting get 'rewarded' with C&T, plus the complexities leave all sorts of tricks and unintended consequences open for scams.

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Old 12-15-2009, 11:39 PM   #57
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I've been noodling on some of these "eat local" ideas while doing some mindless tasks around the house, I just googled a few things to tie my thoughts together...

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Obviously there's much more that goes into the price of a head of lettuce than just cost of diesel to ship it from the left coast to the right coast.

... That lettuce was so old by the time I got it, it didn't have much shelf life left and I ended up throwing half of it out. So, how "cheap" was my lettuce, really?

When I go to my farmer's market and buy directly from the small grower who lives 15 miles away...
OK, there are plenty of reasons why someone might choose to buy local - added variety, possible higher quality/freshness, the chance to talk directly to the grower, etc. Or they just want to. I do some of it for those very reasons. However, I'm just not buying that it is a slam dunk that the "15 mile meal" is vastly superior energy-wise, to the proverbial "1500 mile meal". And that seems to be the main reason I hear around the "buy local" fans - they focus on those shipping distances. Some personal background, and then some numbers...

So my local Farmer's Market is a short 3-4 mile drive, but it becomes a "destination" trip because I don't do much shopping in that town, and at one day a week it's unlikely for me to combine the trip with something else there. So 7 miles to pick up a few veggies - 1/3 gallon of gas. Small market, not so much choice, sometimes I buy nothing, other times what I buy doesn't fit so well with our meal plans, so some goes to waste. IME, no big difference from shopping at the big stores in that regard.

OTOH, a COSTCO, three big chains and a Trader Joes are all near each other ~ 5 miles away in the other neighboring town where we do most of our shopping. And we often combine that trip with other things, plus we get our paper goods, toothpaste, etc, that we can't get at a Farmer's Market.

Now, there's a larger FM in the county that I've heard good things about (though DW went once and was not impressed). But that's a 25 mile round trip for me - a gallon of gas.

So let's extrapolate a bit....

From this link,

Is local food really miles better? - Salon.com

the writer says he observed at his local FM, the farmers brought 200 to 2,000# of produce in their truck. He mentions that a semi carries 40,000#. So it takes 20 trucks/farmers to provide that semi worth of produce (assuming they all packed out at 2,000#). If we use your 15 mile number (30 mile round trip), that is already 600 "food miles" accounted for, or 6,000 worst case. Hmmmm.

OK, so a small truck *might* get 3x the mpg of a semi, so that would be ~ 200 to 2,000 "food mile" equivalent (see where "food miles" breaks down?). That also assumes the farmer doesn't have another carload of staff driving along. But it gets worse...

Let's say that 1 out of 20 visitors to the FM come from 10 miles away, and the other 19 don't go a single inch out of their way (I think that is being very generous). That is an average one mile per customer. And lets assume that each customer on average buys 20# of produce (that also seems very generous to me). At 1 mile per 20#, that takes 2,000 extra miles for those customers to by one semi-load of food. So we are way over the 1500 "food mile" mark with what I would say are some very generous assumptions. I'd bet reality is far worse, with the average miles being higher, and the average purchase being much smaller.

One could pick numbers all over the map. I'm not trying to (and can't) "prove" that one is more fuel efficient than the other - just trying to point out that what might seem obvious on the surface isn't necessarily so.

I'll definitely go out of my way when the quality and value warrants it. I've never bought the sick looking sweet corn I've seen at Costco, but I can swing by a nearby farmstand any day of the week during the season, and get some great tasting corn (I know, I spent some years on a farm - to us fresh corn meant picked with an hour of dinner time). But I'm not claiming that it saves fossil fuel, I just like that sweet corn. And I like pineapple and bananas and mangoes, too. And raspberries and herbs from my yard. IOW, I think if we just choose the value that fits our needs, we'll be OK. The other stuff will fall in line. If energy prices affect produce prices so much, adjustments will be made.

Well, that got long - so to reiterate my intro, in case anyone got the wrong idea along the way - I'm not casting dispersions on "buy local" or anyone who chooses to do so (as I do myself when it fits my needs), but I don't think they can automatically justify it on the fossil fuel used just by comparing a "1500 mile meal" to a "15 mile meal".

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Old 12-16-2009, 07:23 AM   #58
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What I took from the article (which was very good, BTW), is that this "food miles" thing is very hard to calculate with any accuracy. I was glad to see this:

For one, I'd asked the wholesalers how far their produce traveled to the terminal market -- but what about the extra leg from the terminal market to the retail store? For that matter, how much carbon dioxide was emitted while consolidating 45,000 pounds of produce from various farms into one semi-trailer truck?

...and each semi idling at zero mpg while the consolidating happens.

The "extra leg" referred to for conventional produce would seem to be roughly the same as the trip made from farm to market - and likely in smaller trucks for easier handling in urban traffic, tight spaces in and around loading docks, etc.

I would think individual CO2 emissions calculations would have to be made every single farmer's market. My guess is that getting to the SF farmer's market (for everybody - shoppers and farmers) is going to involve a lot more inefficient "city driving" than getting to my farmer's market on the green of a small village. In this area, there are quite a few farmer's markets so it shouldnt be necessary for most people to drive too far out of their way to get to one. That may not be the case elsewhere.

And, not all Farmer's Markets are created equal. Many have very tight restrictions on what can be sold - the produce has to have been grown by the vendor or within a specified radius of the Market. Others have no restrictions at all - and what a lot of the "farmers" sell is simply unwrapped grocery store produce shipped in from well out of the region. Pineapples at a farmer's market in upstate NY are not local

But hey, eating more locals is always an option, too :

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Old 12-16-2009, 07:24 AM   #59
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15 mile diet in Canada in December

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Old 12-16-2009, 08:32 AM   #60
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What I took from the article (which was very good, BTW), is that this "food miles" thing is very hard to calculate with any accuracy.
What I took away from the article is - "why should we care?" (about food miles). Not only is it extremely hard to calculate, but it seems largely irrelevant, and distracts from other bigger issues. It's a poor measure, but it is the one that gets the "gotcha" headline -- "OMG, that food traveled 1500 miles! The humanity!". And people responding to poor measurements make poor, and often counter-productive "solutions".

As the article states (emphasis mine):

Quote:
But Saunders says this kind of "education" could discredit the local food movement when consumers find out food miles can create a misleading picture. "I think if we're going to push simplistic concepts, we've got to have credibility," she says. "Let's think of another one, not food miles."
I agree that a San Fransisco FM is not very typical of many areas of the country (being closer to the food sources for one), that is why I didn't quote too many specifics. But I think the numbers I gave from my experience (in a semi-rural, small town near larger towns area) demonstrate the problem.

When I do calculations like this, I generally see they agree with common sense. As samclem points out, if it didn't make sense to ship these things from where they grow, they wouldn't. If the stuff was so bad, fewer people would buy it. It just wouldn't be profitable. Sure, sometimes consumers make poor choices due to lack of information. But I think the average consumer can decide for themselves if that pineapple tastes good enough to pay the price (which includes shipping), or will look for alternatives to lettuce if it is always rotting before they can use it. And if you spend some time in CA, you'll see they don't ship everything they grow there - some things just don't travel well, people won't buy them, or they are so expensive due to air freight, that people buy small amounts. It is self-limiting! For some of those, we buy dried or frozen or preserved (jams/jellies/syrups) if that is an option. What we are seeing is what works for people in general.

Again, I think FMs are great, choice is good. But I'm not accepting that buying food produced 1500 miles from point of purchase is automatically more energy intensive than buying food produced 15 miles from point of purchase.

To loop this back to Cap & Trade, it is these hard to define, slippery numbers that make C&T a monster when applied to greenhouse gas, or carbon emissions, or fossil fuel use (have they even decided what they are capping?).

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Originally Posted by Kroeran View Post
15 mile diet in Canada in December

heh, heh, heh - I think I may have mentioned along the way - but the main ingredient in the beer I brew is water, which comes from my well about 200 feet total distance. The grain is midwest grown, and malted just over the WI border. The hops are usually from PNW, but just a few ounces per 2 case worth of beer, and a smidge of yeast that may have come from Europe. On a weight basis, about as local as one can get, including washing & recycling the bottles right on the property (and the product for that matter, as I am on septic!) .

Perhaps we should move the rest of the "buy local" discussion to your "sustainability thread"?

Sustainable Food & Financial Systems

-ERD50
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