Local food leaves a sizable footprint too

Transportation efficiency Energy consumption in local production may surprise consumers, says report

Canadian consumers who opt for locally produced food because they think it is more environmentally friendly should think again, says a new study from the Conference Board of Canada.

Improved transportation and food supply chain logistics have made long distance transport of fresh and frozen food viable, economical and environmentally sustainable, says the report published in late July.

Local food production can actually consume more energy and leave a larger “environmental footprint” than food produced more efficiently and transported, says the report, Fast and Fresh: A Recipe for Canada’s Food Supply Chains.

“While Canadian consumers often feel that they are environmentally conscious when it comes to their food choices, they will need a more sophisticated understanding of what determines the environmental footprint of their foods so they can effectively act on this concern,” it said.

“Due to the relative energy consumption and associated emissions of the production and transportation components of food supply chains, simply relying on local origins of food products is an inadequate indicator of environmental performance.”

The report suggested that companies involved in the food system supply chain have an obligation to educate consumers.

“Consumers who choose to narrowly focus on the distance their food has travelled in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may in fact be choosing a product with a larger emission footprint on a life cycle basis,” it said.

“This is a result of the fact that significantly more energy is consumed during the production process relative to the transportation process.”

The report calls for improvements in the food industry supply chain from better infrastructure to local regulations.

The report, written by Vijay Gill from the conference board, is part of a series of food strategy background reports that will culminate in the unveiling of a proposed national food strategy next spring.

The conference board, funded by fees charged for services provided to the private and public sector, has close ties to many of Canada’s large food industry corporate players and support from Agriculture Canada. It bills itself as “the foremost independent, not-for-profit, applied research organization in Canada.”

The report argues that technology allowing long distance movement of fresh and frozen food from efficient producing areas to markets, increasingly by rail, has been a boon for consumers by giving them an increased variety of eating choices at lower costs.

However, the local food movement emphasis on the environmental costs and reduced “freshness” of transported produce has obscured the benefits of the modern ability to transport food “vast distances” in temperature-controlled containers.

“Unfortunately, the narrowly defined objective of food miles has typically generated more attention than the seemingly mundane, albeit highly rigorous, methodology of ‘life cycle emissions,’ ” said the report.

“As a result, what could be heralded as a major contributor to higher quality of life has often been demonized for the very aspect that allows for those benefits: the safe and efficient transportation of food over vast distances.”

It said the implication for improved food supply chain infrastructure extends far beyond Canada.

Infrastructure improvements in foreign countries could help Canadian exporters access new markets. It could also increase competition for Canadian product from other countries or domestic supply.

It cites Canada’s booming pulse export industry as an example.

“The development of foreign hinterland infrastructure can provide opportunities for domestic exporters,” it said.

“But it can also pose a threat because countries such as India that lack inland infrastructure have difficulty delivering their own products to domestic consumers. Developing this infrastructure and competence could to some extent obviate the need to import similar products.”

  • Philip Lambert

    Greetings. I don’t agree with the comments on this article. The author did not provide any facts or results of any kind of study to support his view. The Conference Board of Canada has close ties to many of Canada’s large food industry corporate players. In my mind, this would make the Conference Board of Canada biased to the large corporate players. Again, there is no facts to substance the author’s claim so don’t put a lot of credibility in this article.

    Phil

    • Andrea

      Right, and environmental groups have no bias at all. Everyone’s opinions are biased, Phil.

  • Kate

    As previously mentioned, there is no substantiation in the article of the so called efficiencies purported to make produce from distant locales as environmentally friendly as those grown closer to home. It might be because there aren’t any!

    You cannot tell me that the strawberries I go pick down the road have the same environmental footprint of those brought in from California, some 2600km give or take ? Unless that rail car runs on air, I don’t think so. The life cycle emissions as far as producing either locally or at a distance are likely relatively the same with the difference being 1000′s of miles of shipping!

    In addition, there is so much more to the local food movement than just miles travelled. Concerns about pesticides and herbicides, resulting bee die off, mistrust of the systemization of our food, as well as stimulating a robust local economy.

    Epic fail Conference Board of Canada and poor fact checking, researching and reporting Western Producer.

    • Miss Farchuk

      An excellent, comment.

  • FLORENCE

    I would like to know who makes up the Conference Board of Canada. LOL LOL

    Please people. We were not born yesterday.

  • Linnea

    This is indeed one of the most silly things I ever read. As Kate says there is more to local food than just that it travelled less. If I can support my local economy I will! They could at least have linked to that study.. if there really is one.

    • Paul Yanko

      Hi Linnea,

      There is, in fact, a study, and you can find its executive summary here: http://www.conferenceboard.ca/cfic/research/2013/fastandfresh.aspx

      There is also a link on that page to download the complete report.

      Cheers,
      Paul

      WP web ed

      • Dayton

        I’m sure if I look hard enough I can find a study that states B.S. is edible, good for you and doesn’t smell. All studies are skewed, under the name of science to suit those paying for the study.

        • Paul Yanko

          You’re right to question every study, Dayton – “follow the money” is one of the first things they teach us at journalism school. In the end, though, good science will stand up to such rigorous examination. This is how we make progress.

          • Dayton

            I reiterate, a hand picked study in the name of journalism/science does not convince me one iota. If one person tells you there is a “Santa Claus” do you believe? Trust the dozens which follow who say the opposite. It wasn’t that long ago experts were telling us we need to grow more grain to feed the worlds masses. The worlds what? Goats? If our foreign export policy was not in place 100 years ago the prairies would have provided food, schools and a decent living for millions of residents. Now the city’s are full of homeless people while the country is full of people less homesteads.

          • Paul Yanko

            I agree with you, Dayton. And I reiterate: now that this study has been put forth, someone else may try to replicate its findings. Of course, their results may differ. This is how science works, this is how we progress. Just as a variety of viewpoints makes for the most informative debate, this is good.

  • Jamie

    Good article. I support buying local as far as helping local growers but most people don’t realize how efficient transportation has become.
    The eat local, eat organic crowd is a lot of the same people. They are not overly concerned with facts.

    • Dayton

      Jamie, tune out of the propaganda filled country stations and perhaps open your mind and listen to a Rock station for awhile. The reason why the general public is behind healthy products is because Dr. Ozz, Oprah, and Suzuki are seen as an honest opinion. Monsanto, Pfizer, Cargill and Dow somehow do not. Even though their bought and paid for Scientists claim all these wonderful benefits.