Eat local on ice

I have long been a fan of, an online portal of environmental news and humour out of the USA. One of my favourite regular columns is Ask Umbra, where readers write and ask Umbra to solve some of the quirkier questions that plague those who wish to tread more lightly on the world. I didn´t realise until today that she has started a video series. Here´s one on the challenges of eating local:

Umbra mentions CSA´s as a great resource, and indeed they are. I tried to find a nice convenient portal of kiwi CSA´s and farmers markets, but failed to find one. However, a great site for such local information is the website, which does have numerous links and conversations regarding local produce, among all the other fantastic things they are up to. Why not start there and then hook up with your local organisation?

Unlike the poor guy in the video, New Zealand enjoys a pretty broad round of growing seasons and plenty of local produce throughout the year. Why would you live anywhere else?

14 Comments Posted

  1. Maybe some applied common sense is needed. Grow what you can – it’s fun and generally tastiest; buy, swap or trade with your community when you can – again fun, usually cheaper than supermarket and almost always tastier; preserve and/or freeze gluts.

    The import/export thing is not uniformly bad: efficiencies in freight systems, the need for some countries eg Pacific Islands to have a market, climatic restrictions on some items (sorry, I don’t think rutabagas (whatever they are) are a fair exchange for a pineapple!) – all these and other factors support that.

    What doesn’t make sense is NZ importing oranges from the USA or exporting apples to Tasmania. There are far better things to use freight for than items that are grown locally.

  2. More good work Kevyn. That all certainly makes sense.

    The American air-freight will be more efficient than the EU air freight simply because the average distance is longer, so more of the distance is covered at operating height (where the plane is most efficient) and the fuel lost in take-off, landing and on the ground can be averaged over a greater distance. International especially intercontinental air freight will be better still.


    PS: I typed CO2 in my earliest post above, but the ‘2’ key on this laptop needs more pressure than I sometimes give it, and I have only just noticed.

  3. Trevor, graphing the ratio between energy used and CO2 generated shows that the variations are clustered. Rail, inland waterways and airfreight in one cluster. Cars, trucks and commuter rail in another cluster. Buses on their own. It is probably more than coincidence that these clusters are for interstate, interurban, intraurban modes respectively.

    Since energy stats are from the USA and the GHG stats from the EU15 there are some aspects of the definitions and physical systems worth noting.

    Looking at how each mode varies from the average for all modes allows us to see where the EU is relatively better or worse than the USA and thereby propose a hypothesis to explain the observed variations.

    Rail, water and air freight systems are almsot twice as energy efficient in the USA. USA has a standard rail gauge, has the Mississippi, and has FEDEX and UPS. They are all legacies of two centuries of free cross-border trade compared with less than two decades in the EU.

    Cars, heavy trucks and commuter rail all have similar energy intensities in EU and USA. There are various differences in the definitions used for the EU and US stats and in operating characteristics that tend to largely balance each other out so the overall differences between EU and USA are very small.

    American buses are only half as energy efficient as European buses. Actually ut’s not the buses themselves but the bus routes. American bus routes have to be twice as long to service the same number of people as in EU simply because that is the difference in average urban population densities.

  4. ps, “So, how much is that locally grown, organically produced tomato worth?”
    Priceless only if you like fried green tomamtoes. Useless till next week (hopefully) if you like ripe ones.

  5. Are you sure you’re not confusing the average red-blooded american with the average blue-blooded European?

    Within a few days of John Deere launching it’s range of urban farming accessories for ride-on mowers every non-covenanted suburban lawn in America will be planted in corn (every red blooded American will want the ultimate combine harvester attachment) 8) The Manhattan skyline will never look the same again 🙁

  6. Of course, the elephant in the room in this whole discussion, is that no red-blooded american would ever consider growing and eating their own produce.

    Anyone with a college graduation considers themselves above grubbing in dirt to grow fruit & veggies; plus, quite a lot of urban USA doesn’t have a planter box by the apartment window, let alone access to an unpolluted space to plant serious food in, or the time outside of work to do so (hell, half of them don’t cook …)

    [ok, BJ, flame me, I realise that’s generalisations aplenty, but I haven’t met any american OE refugees (y’know, the college gap-year ones) who have ever thought that they themselves could grow anything – it’s something they always imagine “the poor” could do to improve food security!]

    Organic market gardens and community gardens are considered to be hippy-fringe stuff still, despite large organic supermarket chains all over California and up to Seattle (see, I do have an appreciation for some things american!), and environmental activism of this sort is likely to get you noticed by the FBI.
    My green-fingered grandmother, thankfully deceased, would be astonished.
    And is probably rolling in her grave, as I grow organic tomatoes, onions, basil, parsley, corn, beetroot and silverbeet, without recourse to any of Monsanto’s fine herbicide/pesticide products, (irony, folks! Don’t buy Monsanto ..) because she was one of the wave of post-war farmers who swore by superphosphate fertilisation, and aerial spraying of pesticides and herbicides on the farms of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
    Heavily subsidised by the NZ Govt, of course. Who got kickbacks from the likes of Dow Industrial, and the fledgling Monsanto Industries, back in the heyday of agricultural chemicals, 1950-mid ’70’s.

    Now we know that the by-products of petro-chemical refinement are not the best fertilisers in the world, but it’s taken 50 years, and three generations of farming families spraying the stuff on everything and it’s cousin, for us to have any idea of just how toxic some of these chemicals in our food chain are.
    They’re found in the grass, the waterways, the milk, the meat, and the progeny of the animals we’ve been ‘treating’, and in some truly tragic cases, it has affected generations of families who have been poisoned by constant handling of these chemicals; notably the families of workers at the now-defunct, but still not cleaned-up, site of Ivan-Watkins-Dow Chemicals production in Paritutu, New Plymouth.
    The ongoing saga of DDT and 245,T production at the facility, the last in the world to be closed in the mid-’90’s, has workers as part of a class action suit against IWD, which is still grinding painfully through the american courts.
    Factory workers with health problems, some terminal, were compensated if they worked on USA soil, something like a decade ago, but the arguement about responsibility for the offshore production facilities is still unresolved.

    So, how much is that locally grown, organically produced tomato worth?

  7. Another detail that Umbra didn’t mention – longer distance transportation usually involves more specialist transport arrangements than the back of the farmer’s pickup, such as refrigeration. The larger vehicles usually means a smoother ride as well. This means that the quality of the produce after the trip may be better even though the journey is longer.


  8. Good work Kevyn. However the ratio between energy used and CO2 generated varies more than I would expect, so I suspect that some of these numbers are a bit out. There will be some varation due to the different Carbon content of the fuels (CNG being lower than diesel or bunker oil and most of the other fuels in between).

    Hopefully in the not to distant future, the situation in New Zealand will be quite different. At present most countries including New Zealand need to burn fossil fuels to generate enough electricity. If we invest in sufficient renewable generation, we can power electric vehicles without adding to the CO2 generated. (For this purpose, “electric” vehicles can include vehicles which are charged up from an electrical supply including compressed air power vehicles and flywheel storage powered vehicles.) This reduces the CO emmissions of trains, buses and electric cars, but not B-Train rigs, maritime, air freight etc.

    One of the great advantages of public transport then comes to the fore – the vehicles used are a few purpose-built vehicles, not a large number of multi-purpose vehicles like the private car fleet. Therefore it is much more practical to run public transport using electric-powered vehicles than it is to electrify the private fleet.


  9. The flaw in Umbra’s answer is that she simply assumes that the energy used in food transport decreases roughly in proportion to the decrease in distance in the distance the food is transported. In fact this is so far from being true that it justifies taking the time to find out just how far from true it is.

    If we look firstly at only the energy and CO2 for propulsion, ignoring vehicles and infrastructure then we can use the tables prepared by ORNL and the EC. We can convert the passenger/km figures into ton/km by assuming 0.1 ton of groceries per person. To allow comparison with walking and cycling we can convert Btu/ton/km into cal/kg/km. Thus we arrive at the following table. To keep things relatively simple the first number is the US cal/kg/km and the bracketed figure is EC CO2 grams/tonne/km.

    Inland waterway 89 (30.9)
    Maritime (13.5)
    Rail 57 (22.9)
    Pickup 8236
    Light Goods Vehicle (405)
    Medium Truck 839
    Heavy Truck 487 (91)
    Airplane 3819 (1302)
    Bus 6049 (669)
    Light Rail 2002
    Heavy Commuter Rail 2545 (456)
    Motorbike (832)
    Car 5536 (1283)
    SUV 6636
    Bicycle 404
    Walk 1762

    Walking and cycling are calculated from exercise charts for the extra energy used compared with doing yoga, assuming 25kg in a trolley for the walker and 50kg in panniers for the cyclist.

    The first easy thing to see is that the CO2 released (per km) by someone taking their groceries home on a bus is half that of someone using a car but it is 50 times more than each km those groceries travelled on a container ship, seven times more than when carried by a juggernaut from the port to the supermarket distribution warehouse and just 65% more than when carried by a local distribution van/truck.

    Note how cycling is only slightly more energy efficient than a B-train and walking is only half as energy efficient as a local delivery truck. Fortunately the difference in total travel distance is hugely in favour of walking and cycling.

    The really worrying comparison is for farmer’s markets. A B-train can bring kumara to Otara from Tauranga using the same energy as a Pickup from Pukekohe.

    As far as the embedded energy is concerned I have to rely on a single thesis published last year which reveals the two changes for bus and car: {peak}, {{off-peak}}, (urban sedan occupancy rate) and [parking facilities and roadway capacity]
    Bus 6049 {1857} {{12594}}
    Car 5536 (5996) [7696]
    The thesis found that per passenger mile urban buses and cars used approximately the same energy for propulsion, vehicle manufacture, maintenance and repairs and for fuel production. The only difference was the energy used building parking facilities and lane capacity for cars. Lane capacity accounted for 58% of the difference. That is of particular concern when kerbside parking is replaced with bus lanes or when busways or cycleways are constructed. That also shows that it is more sustainable to drive to the supermarket in a pickup than to travel by off-peak bus. That creates a real catch-22 situation for those advocating improved off-peak bus services. If more frequent services increase passenger km more than bus km then it is good for the environment, otherwise i is worse than giving everyone a new pickup to drive. Unless they’re water powered buses in which case it’s only the embedded energy that’s important and unless we build fancy bus lanes everywhere then the embedded energy of an off-peak bus is only one-third of the total energy used by an off-peak sedan.

  10. You cannot escape the goodness of tree/vine ripened fruit, instead of cold store/chemical induced ripeness. That for me is the most cogent argument for eating local. It appeals directly to my self interest. It tastes so damn good!!!

  11. But rich ex-oil exec’s are the only ones who can afford the lifestyle block, solar panels, windmills and organic food, electric car ….

    But seriously, if everyone ate local, the best thing would be we’d be able to get the ‘good stuff’ instead of it all being exported overseas. Even when we go to the local fruit growers (those not yet covered by new suburbs), the fruit is rock hard and never ripens properly. Now when I was a lad, and used to wear a (local) onion in my belt ….

  12. Ok, so I’m joking, but my dark sense of humour finds it funny….

    I spent some time contemplating what modification to my diet would be best for the planet…. when it struck me… I could make my carbon footprint negative!

    It’s so simple… Eat the Rich!

    Nah. Not a good idea really. Too much saturated fats in the diet.

    Just joking, just joking… Aaargh! PUT ME DOWN! I was just joking! Really!

  13. Interesting Frog; – read a report last nite that the average foodstuff in the USA makes a journey of some 2,000 miles to it’s end-user point. Lots of (unnecessary?) dirty air created…
    Also a report that there is a new, widespread, computer worm, spreading fast across Asia – will tell more when I know more.
    cheers Mark

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