What's in a Number?
How the press got the idea that food travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate.
In the end, Pirog tallied that produce arriving in Chicago from within the United States traveled 1,518 miles. But even if you live in the Windy City, that doesn't account for milk or meat, which make up a significant part of American diets. Nor does it account for kiwis from Italy, apples from New Zealand, or grapes from Chile. This, despite the fact that imports make up a growing percentage—15 percent of U.S. food in 2005—of what ends up on our tables.
Researchers have done little work to calculate food miles for areas outside the Midwest. A 1997 study showed that produce travels an average of 1,129 miles to Austin, 34 percent fewer than to Chicago. In 2001, an analysis of the Jessup, Md., terminal market concluded that U.S.-grown produce traveled an average of more than 1,685 miles. And though there's no formal research to support it, Pirog says it's safe to assume that, on average, food travels fewer miles to get to diners in California than to those in New York.
All statistics, of course, are based on a series of assumptions. And Pirog is quick to point out that whether or not the 1,500-mile figure applies to everyone and everything—or how it's been misused—it has raised consciousness about where food comes from. It sends a message: It matters what you buy, and where you buy it. Of course, the media's enthusiastic embrace of this statistic has as much to do with a growing sense of urgency about where food comes from as their need for quick ways to explain complex problems. Just as the fake stat that plastic takes 500 years to break down in landfills has become shorthand for America's myopic attachment to one-time-use packaging, the 1,500 mile-figure has become a breezy way for the media to explain America's Byzantine food system and its consequences.
There are consequences, too, for oversimplifying. If we all think in food miles, the answer is obvious: Buy local. But new studies show that in some cases it can actually be more environmentally responsible to produce food far from home. According to a 2006 report from New Zealand's Lincoln University, it is four times more energy efficient for Londoners to buy New Zealand lamb, which is grass-fed and shipped halfway 'round the world, than to buy lamb raised on grain in England. And if we want to combat global warming, cutting back on meat may be more effective than buying local produce.
New measures are being put in place to help guide our decisions. Pirog, for one, has moved on from food miles to studies that focus on consumer impact: Does it make sense, for example, to pick up your farm share or have it delivered? Across the Atlantic, British grocer Tesco has rolled out carbon labels that attempt to calculate the exact amount of greenhouse gases created by everything from shampoo to potato chips and fruit smoothies. Like food miles, these new numbers raise as many questions as they answer. For example, how are these carbon labels calculated? How will they stay up to date as producers change their business models to respond to rising oil prices or tax incentives for green companies? You're more likely to get killed by a terrorist than find a simple answer.
Jane Black, formerly a food writer at the Washington Post, is currently at work on a book about food culture and class in Huntington, W.Va. She blogs at www.janeblack.net.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.