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What you eat can kill… the environment

I have a confession to make.

I’m a very picky eater. That’s actually an understatement, because since I can remember I have had an innate unwillingness to try new foods, especially those that don’t look, smell, or “feel” like any of the five or so foods I was accustomed to eating as a child. To make matters worse, I have always had a misplaced trust in the processed foods that I find in my local grocery store. How can you help but trust the fruits, snacks, vegetables, and beverages in their pretty and well-designed packaging, lined neatly across the rows of well-lit aisles in your local grocery store.

The mere fact that someone somewhere has focused so much attention and effort on presenting these things to me in such an appealing fashion leads me to assume that this same attention to detail is necessarily characteristic of every step of the manufacturing process, from the sourcing of raw materials to the transportation of finished products to my shopping cart. I’m about to reveal the most shocking thing you will hear all day: my assumption is incorrect! It’s okay I’ll give you a second to gather yourself…

We won’t even consider here manufacturers’ attention to detail as it pertains to producing products whose ingredients don’t harm the consumers that consume them. That’s a topic for an entirely different blog post (or maybe for a book…or a series or books…or a video documentary). Let’s just start with a single example of manufacturers’ attention to the environment as they produce the goods that we consume. The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) provides a great example:

On the Hawaiian island of Maui is a sugar museum. It is next door to a sugar processing plant, and surrounded by acres of sugarcane growing…The sugarcane growing on that acreage is processed in the plant across the street, but only to the ‘raw sugar’ stage. It is then shipped to the C & H Sugar Refinery in Contra Costa County, not far from San Francisco…Here, it is refined into the white sugar that is such a ubiquitous part of our American diet. But that’s not the end of its journey: the sugar is then shipped cross-country to New York, where it is packaged into little individual paper packages of sugar to go on tabletops, which are then distributed all across the country, including Hawaii.

So if you drive a mile away from that sugarcane field and sit in a café, the sugar packets on your table have traveled about 10, 000 miles: to California, to New York, and back again to Hawaii, instead of the one mile you have. This is not the exception, but rather the rule, in our current food system.

When we talk about the impact that the manufacturing process has on the environment, we default to a conversation around the pollutants involved in the manufacturing process. We don’t, as often, talk about the impact of moving goods through the various steps of the manufacturing process. It turns out that the average American meal travels 1500 miles from farm to plate, and given that transportation accounts for over 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions1, the planes, trains, and automobiles (and boats) that make the modern supply chain work is something we should be talking about more.

So what can we do to impact the vast distances that food travels to get to us? Here’s a perfect example where a seemingly complex problem has an amazingly simple solution: eat food that is closer to you! (I’ll give you a second for that to process) I’m not even suggesting that you grow your own food (though that’s a GREAT way to make an impact), but I guarantee that wherever you live there are farmers within a couple of hundred miles that are growing the foods that you consume. I bet also, that many of those farmers sell their products in local farmers markets, that may not be as pretty and pristine as the well-lit aisles of your local grocery store, but offer foods that are healthier, fresher, and more “environmental friendly”. Dare I say, that proximity to farmers markets is a dimension worthy of consideration when shopping for that new house or apartment? I know you already have so much to consider when looking for a place to live, but what a great way to help the environment AND ensure great-tasting food all in one fell swoop!


1Environmental Protection Agency

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