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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.”

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