Gary Adamkiewicz, senior research scientist in environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health and co-instructor for From Farm to Fork: Why What You Eat Matters, discusses the nuances of food miles and their impact on our climate.
In general, choose options that provide more meals per gallon (MPG) by using these five guiding principles.
- Lower your food chain standards. Your overall dietary pattern can be more important than how far your food travels. Foods derived from livestock accumulate impacts along the entire food chain that feeds them, so eating lower on this chain is a better path. Moving toward a plant-based diet is a classic case of win-win-win: better for the environment, better for the climate, and better for your health. You don’t need to be an uber-vegan to make a difference. Start by swapping a few meals each week.
- Bad if by land, good if by sea (and worst if by air). Limit your consumption of foods that are shipped by air, such as asparagus and many berries from South America, which need to get to market quickly. Remember that long trucking hauls can pack a climate punch. Rail transport is efficient, but much less product moves this way in the United States. Sometimes a long container ship voyage can be worth it if the food has a small production footprint (like the New Zealand lamb). See the National Resource Defense Council’s Health Facts for more information on food miles and which foods travel by air.
- Local is more than nearby. Expand your view of local beyond space and into time. Purchasing in-season produce should be another goal, since you will likely avoid energy sinks like heated greenhouses and cold storage. Check out the National Resource Defense Council’s Eat Local Map for information on farmer’s markets and seasonal eating near you.
- Go to the source. Processing, packaging, heating, and refrigeration all consume energy. So avoid highly processed foods. When you incorporate fresh, local fruits and vegetables into your meals, you save some energy-intensive steps and perhaps some petrochemical-derived packaging along the way.
- Be COOL. It never hurts to know where your food comes from. Starting with the 2002 Farm Bill, the United States began requiring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for certain foods. The list now includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat, chicken, fish, shellfish, and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. This labeling can help you understand the miles embedded in your dinner.