Not All Food Miles Are Created Equal

Prairie Gleanings

Take a moment to ponder the logistics of farmers' market vendors. You may be surprised.

Published on: June 26, 2013

The farmers’ market season is upon us.

If you buy local because it’s fresher and you enjoy the idea of supporting local farmers – good for you. If you do it because it’s better for the environment, keep reading.

Numerous studies have been conducted on food miles. However, as Tyler Cowen pointed out in his book An Economist Gets Lunch, not all food miles are created equal.

If we’re talking asparagus, local sources will probably win out in the food miles discussion. Cowen notes this food is typically flown in from overseas, meaning its food miles are quite burdensome on the environment.

But, if the food in question was trucked across the U.S. from California, that’s actually much more efficient than one may think. A half-ton pickup full of produce making numerous 50-mile roundtrips is much more inefficient.

What uses less fuel? Making 20+ 50-mile roundtrips with this stuff? Or one semi load?
What uses less fuel? Making 20+ 50-mile roundtrips with this stuff? Or one semi load?

In past summers, we’ve made trips into St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park, where they host the area’s second largest farmers’ market. We make the 45-mile roundtrip for one particular vendor that sells gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.

Perusing that market, I’m always struck by the absurdity of some vendors. It seems everyone slaps “organic” on their sign. Organic is so ubiquitous, I seriously doubt they’re all certified.

My favorite is a freezer pasture-fed beef vendor from central Missouri. The folks’ address is just down the interstate from my hometown of Rolla, Mo.

For them, the roundtrip from the farm to the market is about 225 miles. They tow a small refrigerated trailer behind a three-quarter ton pickup each weekend.

Using ballpark figures, they’re burning about 20 gallons of gas each weekend, just in the trip there. That’s not counting the fuel it takes to keep that trailer cool in the middle of a 90-degree day. And, this is assuming they’re spending the night in the truck.

I’d wager they’re using at least two 55-gallon drums of gas each month. I have no idea what the ratio of fuel to meat sold is, but I’m willing to bet they’re backhauling a lot of their meat each week.

I’m sorry, but this is a terribly inefficient way to distribute meat. If you’re willing to pay the price for this sort of thing, fine by me. Just don’t think you’re saving the environment while you’re doing it.