June 21, 2005
Long Distance Runaround
When shopping for food, how important is it to buy local? This question isn't rhetorical: I no longer know quite what to think about this. Obviously, transporting food long distances requires fossil fuels and creates air pollution, among other ills. So all else being equal, it's better to buy local. But how much better, I'm just not sure.
Studies such as this one (reported on here by the BBC, blogged about here) suggest that, in terms of net environmental impact, it's even more important to buy local than to buy organic. The authors of the study didn't look at human health issues, but did attempt to quantify all sorts of environmental "externalities" -- i.e., costs not borne by the consumer -- resulting from food production. And they found that transportating food was far and away the largest component of external environmental costs. In other words, the closer to home the food is grown, the better it is for the planet.
But then there's this analysis, from the Earth Policy Institute:
The U.S. food system uses over 10 quadrillion Btu (10,551 quadrillion Joules) of energy each year...21 percent of overall food system energy is used in agricultural production, another 14 percent goes to food transport, 16 percent to processing, 7 percent to packaging, 4 percent to food retailing, 7 percent to restaurants and caterers, and 32 percent to home refrigeration and preparation.
Wading through all these numbers, it looks as though food transport is not as big a deal as I'd thought. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the US consumes about 100 quadrillion BTUs (or "quads") of energy each year. If the Earth Policy Institute is correct, then transporting farm products takes about 14% of 10 quads, or about 1.4 quads a year. That's a huge amount of energy, admittedly, so buying local certainly helps. But still, transport is only the fourth largest component of the food system -- which means that, as a consumer, you can probably squeeze out significantly more energy savings by getting a more efficient refrigerator or stove, or eating more grains and veggies and less meat.
And then there's this, from p. 62 of the Union of Concerned Scientist's venerable Consumer's Guide to Effective Enviornmental Choices...
Transportation accounts for 26 percent of ghg emissions from the fruit, vegetable, and grain category, but only 0.6 percent of all emissions traceable to consumer purchases.
Now, if this is right, then moving food all around the country (as eco-unfriendly as the practice may seem on its face) is a relative drop in the bucket. Or, er, oil barrel. According to the book, personal transportation and household operations -- what and how far you drive, and how you heat and power your house -- account for nearly two thirds of an individual's GHG emissions. That's about 100 times as much energy as is used transporting fruits, vegetables and grains. So by this reckoning, growing all of your food in your own backyard isn't as important as improving your car's gas mileage by a mere 3 percent. Or, put differently, all else being equal, it may be wiser to choose a home within walking distance of a grocery store than one that's adjacent to the fields where your food is grown.
Obviously, there's a lot to consider here. First of all, the numbers feel, well, squishy to me. When I was researching this post, I found all sorts of estimates of how much energy goes into agriculture; the sources I highlight in this post seem credible and well-reasoned, but probably aren't definitive. Second, one shouldn't just consider the global-warming implications when making consumer choices. There are all sorts of good reasons -- practical and emotional, environmental and economic -- to buy locally grown food. But since my time, money, and attention are all limited, I like to concentrate my efforts on the choices that make the biggest difference. The problem is that now I'm just not sure how big an environmental priority to assign to buying local food: is it the most important choice you can make, or a relatively minor one? What was once clear is now, to me, opaque.
And finally: high oil prices have spawned renewed concern over fuel shortages in the coming decades--and since modern agriculture certainly requires lots of fuel, some folks seem especially worried whether there will be enough food to go around. That's a reasonable enough thing to worry about. But again and again I hear people argue that the best solution is to go "back to the land" -- to spread out over the landscape, and carve up corporate mega-farms into 40 acre homesteads so that the food doesn't have far to go from farm field to table. That could work, I suppose. But that sort of low-density sprawl runs exactly counter to the examples of the world's most energy-efficient economies, in which people tend to concentrate in compact urban areas where they don't have to drive much to get around.
Which suggests that how much I drive is likely of far greater consequence than how much my food does.
June 15, 2005
Because NEW has done a study on the high levels of PBDEs in northwesterners, people often ask us about what they can do to protect themselves and their children from the toxic flame retardants.
A good new resource on this topic is Green Guide's handy clip-and-save Smart Shoppers PBDE card (pdf). The card gives general tips on avoiding toxics in your diet and--most useful--lists computer and furniture companies that have chosen not to use PBDEs in their products, including Intel, Motorola, IKEA, and Lifekind. (Green Guide also has a good article summarizing the risks of PBDEs.)
It's worth keeping in mind, though, that ultimately the best way to avoid PBDEs--which have been found in everything from dust to grocery store food--is to phase them out of all new products and get rid of old PBDE-laden products. They are so ubiquitous that exposure isn't a choice. So consumers need to pay attention to policy as well, as the mothers from our study know well. (To see what your region is doing to phase out PBDEs, go here.)
June 08, 2005
Green Beauty Label Axed
Last week, the US Department of Agriculture announced it won’t allow the “USDA Organic” label on cosmetics or personal-care products. The decision comes as a blow not only to the natural-product companies that have been spending money and time to coordinate their practices and products with the USDA’s standards, but to consumers as well.
Standardized labeling helps consumers identify products that adhere to criteria for sustainability—-like the Forest Stewardship Council’s sustainable lumber label-—or gives them more information, like the recently implemented Country of Origin labeling for seafood, which tells not only where fish is from, but whether it’s farmed or wild.
Those labels help consumers make informed choices, and as the demand rises for eco-friendly products (for organics, it’s been rising about 20 percent per year for a decade), those choices will have a bigger impact on the marketplace. Aligning markets with sustainable practices—and letting consumers know about it—is a key method for creating a sustainable economy (see This Place on Earth 2001, p. 70, pdf).
P.S. Widespread standards, like the USDA’s organic label, are also designed to help consumers cut through the clutter of information. But sorting through labels can also be tough; here’s one website that helps.
June 07, 2005
Talking the Talk vs. Walking the Walk
Via Planetizen News, here's an interesting sustainability ranking for 25 US cities. The Northwest fares pretty well: Portland ranks #2, and Seattle #4. (The Bay Area beats the Northwest by a nose: San Francisco and Berkeley, CA rank #1 and #3, respectively.)
I haven't had time to look through the methods thoroughly. But my first impression is that it gives undue weight to intentions, and not enough to actual performance. For example, Portland does exceptionally well in climate and energy policy, while New York City's rank on energy policy is only middling. But this only measures what cities say about energy, not what they actually do. In fact, at least in terms of transportation efficiency, Portland eats The Big Apple's dust: New York has by far the most energy efficient transportation system in the country, largely because higher residential densities let many New Yorkers get around on public transit or on foot. So even though Portland is doing a good job of talking the talk on energy efficiency, in New York City they're (literally) walking the walk.
That's not to say that Portland's energy policy is irrelevant, or that rankings like these aren't a useful exercise. Far from it. Still, actions speak louder than words -- and any attempt to measure sustainability should look far more closely at what cities actually do than at what their leaders say.
June 01, 2005
Share and Share Alike - Northwest CSAs
In this month's Cascadia Scorecard News, we profile the Northwest's community-supported agriculture movement, which has exploded in the past 15 years. (Community-supported agriculture farms--or CSAs--are growers who sell prepaid “shares” of produce directly to consumers, either for the full season or for a shorter commitment.)
My personal indicator of their growth is that the last time I wrote about CSAs, in 1996, there were around five serving King County, Washington; now there at least 29 farms serving King County and 65 in the state. This is a story that is paralleled throughout the region: small sector, big growth.
Do you have your own story about CSAs and other local-produce efforts in the Northwest? If so, please share them with other readers (by commenting below). We'd love to hear your tips on how to choose a farm, how long to commit, and how to make sure your dollars are doing the most good.
Tips on British Columbian CSAs would be especially appreciated, as online resources were scarce.
May 20, 2005
The first time I celebrated Bike to Work Day, I didn’t have a job (I was a recent college graduate in search of one) so I experienced the event as more of a Bike-to-Free-Food-Booths Day. Luckily, the sponsors only asked for proof of biking, not working, and since my ancient 10-speed was my main form of transportation at the time, I fit right in.
That was in 1988. Since that time, I’ve gained jobs and various commute modes (including hitch-hiking by pickup truck), but biking remains my favorite. I feel lucky that my home, Seattle, has bike racks, bike lanes (the Sammamish trail is a recent victory), and bike advocacy groups. And hey, I’ve only been doored once.
It’s discouraging to note, though, that bike commuting is only slowly catching on in the US, despite that it’s healthy, cheap, and the most energy-efficient form of travel. According to the 2000 Census, while the number of bike commuters increased slightly from 1990, the percentage was still very low--0.4 percent of all commute trips.
Seattle and Portland do rate third and fifth of US cities in their population category, respectively, in percentage of workers who commute by bike. But I have to say I expected Portland—where the Hawthorne Bridge swarms with two-wheeled businesspeople on weekday mornings, I’m told--to beat Seattle; anyone have different or more recent numbers?
According to this VTPI report (pdf, p.21), Canadians pedal to work at a higher rate than Americans (1.2 percent of work trips were by bike in 2001), particularly British Columbians. Victoria ranked highest of any Canadian metropolitan area--4.8 percent in 2001--for share of work trips by bike.
And then there are countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, where “bike modal shares of travel” average 20-30 percent.
How to encourage more folks to hop on their two-wheelers for the short, everyday trips that they don’t really need a car for? Compact urban design obviously plays a big role. Gas price hikes probably aren't hurting.
Bike paths and lanes are also often promoted as a way to get people to pedal more. I’m also intrigued by the “shared streets” model of integrating transportation modes rather than separating them—which would turn streets into public spaces where children, pedestrians, cyclists, and streetcars mix with slow-moving cars.
With destinations closer together and bikes on equal footing with cars, we wouldn't need a Bike to Work Day--or free goodies--to help us choose two wheels over four.
May 19, 2005
Sometimes the Cloth Does Not Make The Baby
Ok, that's a dumb headline. But the problem itself -- whether to diaper my babies with cloth or disposables -- was one I spent a bit of time agonizing over.
But perhaps I shouldn't have. A new study commissioned by the British Environment Agency (reported on here and here) suggests there's almost no difference between the two, at least in terms of environmental impacts. Which is roughly the same answer that this 1992 study, at the website of our friends at the Institute for Lifecycle Energy Analysis, came to.
The British study made some suggestions for ways that both disposables and cloth diapers could be improved, to reduce their impacts: for example, the study recommends reducing washing temperature, using efficient washers, and line drying for home-washed cloth diapers. (Which, of course, is good advice for all your washing, not just diapers.)
Mr. Potato Head
News of the weird: Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne is lobbying California governor Arnold Swartzenegger to exempt fried potatoes from a list of foods that cause cancer -- even if they do, in fact, cause cancer. Says one potato-head:
"If the french fry business in California drops, it would hurt everybody," said Keith Esplin, director of the Potato Growers of Idaho. [Emphasis added.]
Everybody, that is, except the folks who might otherwise develop tumors.
Backing up a bit -- frying potatoes and other carbohydrate-rich foods creates acrylamides, which are known to cause cancer in rats. That evidence is strong enough that the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have recommended that people try to avoid acrylamides in their diet. To be fair, a recent Swedish study found no apparent link between acrylamides and cancer in people, at least at concentrations found in the Swedish diet. Still, economic risk to potato farmers is absolutely no reason to withhold information about dietary risks from consumers.
In other odd food happenings, (and coinciding with the release of the latest installment of the Star Wars saga), there's this.
May 16, 2005
Oregon Food Processor Labels Itself
Good news from the Capital Press for northwesterners who like their food without a side of pesticides and unfair trade. The 240 farms that make up Norpac, Oregon’s largest fruit and vegetable processor, have contracted with a third party to certify that their production practices are sustainable.
The certification standards were developed by Norpac growers, with help from Oregon State University scientists and the Food Alliance--an Oregon nonprofit with a highly rated certification program--and include environmental and social standards in areas such as pest and disease management, treatment of farmworkers, soil and water conservation, and wildlife impacts. Growers will be recertified every three years.
For consumers, this means that eventually we'll see a seal on products that have met Norpac’s standards. While some might sigh about another label to contend with—see this Wall Street Journal article (pdf) on the bumper crop of beyond-organic labels--it’s still noteworthy that a company as large as Norpac is buying into certification. (Perhaps the boycott of its products in the 1990s made PR more of a priority.)
“This is market-driven,” said Rick Jacobson, president and CEO of Norpac. “Our growers realize what a tough market this is. We have to find a way to distinguish ourselves.”
P.S. Ecolabels.org is a good source on how labels stack up, gives the Food Alliance label a high rating, but notes that it's been criticized for copyrighting its label (Norpac's label is also proprietary).
Update: Corrected an error on 5/18 (OSU scientists, not U of O scientists).
April 19, 2005
Alan's been critical of USDA's old food pyramid--particularly because it appears to promote a diet filled with starch and low in oils. Recent research suggests that plant oils can be good for you, while over-consumption of refined carbohydrates may be contributing to rising levels of obesity and diabetes.
Responding to his concerns (ha!) USDA just released its new food pyramid. Behold:
Oh my. Talk about incomprehensible. This thing is worse than useless. The only clear message I get out of it is that, when making choices about my diet, I should be sure to avoid eating things that aren't food.
To be fair, the USDA website does give custom-tailored dietary guidelines, based on your sex and age. (I'm obviously not qualified to comment on the quality of those recommendations, but wouldn't be surprised if they were of similar, er, quality to the pyramid itself.)
But to the extent that the food pyramid is supposed to be an handy memory aid to remind you of what sort of things you should be eating, it fails. Miserably.
You have to wonder about the political process that creates something like this. No, wait; actually, you don't.
Update: I'm just sitting here getting angrier and angrier about this thing. Why? Bad diets are KILLING PEOPLE. Giving people some useful & accurate information about healthy eating is the easiest & least intrusive thing the government could possibly do to change that. But this thing is neither useful nor accurate -- which makes it both a waste of money and a wasted opportunity. And that makes me think that it's mostly a sop to the food industries that were unhappy about being at the skinny end of the old pyramid. Facts and cash collided; the facts bounced off, and cash stood firm.