Concern about food miles—the distance food travels from field to plate—is prompting retailers to favor local suppliers, and that’s worrying fruit growers in areas such as Washington State that are relatively far from their markets.
The concept behind food miles is that the distance food travels between the producer and consumer is a potential indicator of the environmental impact of the food. This travel results in increased carbon dioxide emissions, which are thought to be contributing to climate change. Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at London’s City University, coined the phrase "food miles" back in the 1990s, but the food miles movement is still gaining traction. Food travels further than it used to, partly because of the centralization of production and distribution systems.
With major U.S. retailers, including Wal-Mart, now jumping on the bandwagon, their suppliers are taking note.
John Botts, domestic sales manager at Dovex Fruit Company, Wenatchee, Washington, said it was apparent when he attended the last Food Market Institute convention that many American retailers are becoming more concerned about environmental issues—whether packaging, recycling, or food miles—and he thinks it’s not just a passing phase.
It’s an issue that producers should take seriously, agreed Glady Bellamy at Columbia Marketing International, Wenatchee, although his company hasn’t felt any impact yet. It will come down to what alternative sources of fruit there are, and whether people are willing to pay for the cost of reducing food miles, he said.
"I think it’s a legitimate issue, but how practical it is, that’s another question."
Andrew Willis, promotion director at the Washington State Fruit Commission, points out that many retailers already carry local supplies of fruits when they’re in season, and they might be rebranding that as a response to the food miles issue.
Extension of organic
Food miles have always been important in the natural-foods sector, and for mainline retailers this is probably just an extension of organic, noted Andy Tudor, sales director for the supplier L & M Companies, LLC, in Selah, Washington, which has 13 locations nationwide. Tudor said it makes sense environmentally for retailers to procure fresh produce from suppliers near their location, and he thinks more buyers will work towards that.
David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist with Washington State University, sees food miles as encompassing two separate issues: a push to buy locally, and a concern about the environmental effects of transporting food long distances.
The push for locally produced food has more to do with wanting food that is fresher and more flavorful and produced in a way that supports local economies. Consumers also like to know where their food comes from and are looking for more accountability. Reports about contaminated food ingredients being imported from China play into that, he said.
In terms of transportation, airfreight is considered to have a significant impact on the environment. Two major U.K. supermarkets, Tesco and Marks & Spencer, have announced that they intend to label products that have been transported by air.
John Warmerdam, a cherry producer in Hanford, California, said it’s only necessary to airfreight cherries to the United Kingdom at certain times of the season when local supplies are not available. Buyers will need to decide if it’s more important to have the fruit or reduce the food miles. "You have two choices. You either don’t take the fruit, or you ship it in that way," he said.
Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Wenatchee, sees it as a positive development that consumers are thinking more about the food they eat and give their children. "I think we do look at an emerging sense that there needs to be more than cheap, edible product." But, in his opinion, food miles is a misleading measuring device.
"The real question is, ‘Are we sustainably producing food and fiber?’ and certainly the food miles argument falls far short of the issues we should be bringing up. We should talk about the carbon footprint. I don’t think it’s inherently evil to be shipping a given commodity x number of miles to a given consumer. It’s what the marketplace is about."
Food needs to be produced under systems that are environmentally sustainable, but also sustainable in terms of social responsibilities, local economies, and the welfare of workers, he said. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the United Kingdom studied the validity of food miles as an indicator of sustainability and reported that it might be more environmentally friendly for tomatoes to be grown in Spain and transported to the United Kingdom than for them to be produced in the United Kingdom in greenhouses requiring light and electricity.
It’s been suggested that it might be more ecologically and energy efficient for U.S. consumers to buy rice from Thailand, where fields are watered by monsoon rains, than from California, where fields are irrigated.
Similarly, producing tree fruits in eastern regions of the United States might require more inputs than if the fruit is grown on the West coast because of higher disease pressure and a need to spray more often. Increased inputs might offset a reduction in food miles, said Warmerdam.
"Reducing food miles sounds really good because it goes with promoting local farms and trying to reduce the carbon footprint. On the other hand, to grow a product in less than an ideal climate simply for the sake of trying to be closer to the areas of consumption will not necessarily reduce the carbon footprint."
Botts agreed that there is more to the story than just buying locally and said there’s a lot of confusion about it.
"Everyone says that local is better, and that’s not necessarily the case. The array of situations out there can be so varied, and the bigger growers in the United States are doing a very responsible job of producing produce with the least impact on the environment that they possibly can to feed this many people."
Doug Pauly at Northern Fruit Company, Wenatchee, said there’s certainly a trend towards buying locally, but local producers can’t supply year-round like Washington can.
Washington State, which produces almost 60 percent of the nation’s fresh apples, produces far more fruit than the state’s six million people could ever consume. Only about 3.5 percent of the apples produced in Washington are consumed in the state, according to the Washington Apple Commission. Similarly, Washington is a major producer of fresh cherries and consumes only 3 percent of its cherry crop, according to Northwest Cherry Growers.
Washington has a competitive advantage in producing certain crops. For example, it has the ideal climate for growing organic apples, which are difficult to produce in places like New York that are more humid. "We’d be crazy to throw that away," Granatstein said.
McFerson said the Washington tree fruit industry already has plenty to brag about when it comes to sustainable practices, but has been reluctant to be seen as caring about environmental issues.
"This is exactly where we’ve been heading as an industry with our technology road map, emphasizing delivering to the consumer the highest quality and reducing production costs."
It also ties in with a new project designed to help Washington growers transition away from organophosphate pesticides.
"I think these are opportunities for us to examine our conscience as an industry and our practices as an industry, and I think we’re doing pretty darned well," McFerson said. "It’s an opportunity to tell the world what the industry’s doing, and we’re doing everything we can to be responsible."