It's Worse Than We Thought: Food Miles Account For a Sickening Amount of Emissions

Even in the dead of winter, when it seems like nothing could grow outside, grocery store vegetable aisles are a riot of color in many parts of the world.

But, according to a recent research, 'food miles' account for 19 percent of all food emissions, which is three times higher than previously assumed.

Worse, although accounting for only 12.5 percent of the global population, high-income nations account for 46 percent of global food-mile emissions.

"Our study estimates global food systems, due to transport, production, and land use change, contribute about 30 percent of total human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. So, food transport – at around six percent – is a sizable proportion of overall emissions," says Mengyu Li, main author of the study and an environmental modeling researcher at the University of Sydney.

"Food transport emissions add up to nearly half of direct emissions from road vehicles."

Most previous articles have either looked at certain nations or specific items (for example, tomato ketchup or cattle), but this isn't able to scale out to offer a very clear general picture of what's going on.

"Although carbon emissions associated with food production are well documented," the researchers write in their new work, "the carbon footprint of the global trade of food, accounting for the entire food supply chain, has not been comprehensively quantified." 

Instead, the researchers utilized a framework called FoodLab to add 74 nations, 37 economic sectors (such as cattle, coal, and fruits and vegetables), and four modes of transportation to develop a model that encompassed the full global supply-chain network.

The findings aren't exactly encouraging. Food transport alone emits 3 gigatonnes of CO2 per year, accounting for 19% of total food-related emissions, including land usage.

The researchers also investigated what would happen if everyone ate just locally produced foods. Food miles emissions would be reduced by 0.27 gigatonnes (0.24 gigatonnes for high-income nations alone! ), while food production emissions would be reduced by 0.11 gigatonnes, according to the researchers.

Unfortunately, because some communities are unable to grow their own food, eating fully locally is impossible, but it provides a decent indication of where we may go from here.

"We tend to interpret information around us in simplistic terms, like 'meat is bad and vegetables are good' but we wanted a much more comprehensive picture," said David Raubenheime, a nutritional ecologist at the University of Sydney, in an interview with The Guardian.

"Our study shows that in addition to shifting towards a plant-based diet, eating locally is ideal, especially in affluent countries," he continues.

Consumers, according to the experts, have the best opportunity of achieving broad change in this scenario. Individually picking the local or seasonal alternative is one of the greatest paths ahead for those of us in high-income nations.

This is especially crucial in the case of fruits and vegetables, which must be chilled before being shipped around the world, resulting in even higher emissions.

Occasionally, grocery stores will incorporate a country-of-origin label to help customers make more local choices. It's much better if you can confirm that the crop was cultivated in your state or region.

Another problem is that many of us have grown accustomed to being able to purchase avocados, asparagus, berries, and citrus at any time of year.

"One example is the habit of consumers in affluent countries demanding unseasonal foods year-round, which need to be transported from elsewhere," adds Raubenheime.

"Eating local seasonal alternatives, as we have throughout most of the history of our species, will help provide a healthy planet for future generations." 

If you're in the United States and need a reminder on what fruits and veggies are available throughout various seasons, check out this website. Other suggestions include purchasing frozen or canned veggies when they are not in season, since they may be saved when they are in abundance.