Food Miles Book Club: Energy and Transportation

Welcome to the Transportation & Energy installments of the Food Miles book club. If you’re new to this discussion, check out the introductory post and the Self Reliance chapter post.

Here’s a quick summary of each of the chapters (full report available here):


Transportation is only one stage in the life-cycle of a particular food item. It is important to reduce CO2 emissions in the food supply chain as a whole, and not to reduce emissions in one area at the expense of another. As the food system becomes increasingly industrialized, and food is processed and transported in ever-larger bulk quantities, transportation becomes a smaller portion of the total energy used to get a product to the consumer. However, the transport stage is growing relative to other life-cycle stages.

Among the problems with a food system becoming more industrialized and globalized, six are identified in this report. The first is that when food is imported, the economic and social benefits of growing that food locally are foregone. Second, food and the inputs for growing that food, are being transported ever greater distances as more global sourcing occurs. More than 8,000 km is now estimated to be the average distance. Third, redundant or unnecessary trade is so common. There are reasons for importing and exporting the same items, like apples, or beef, but we should examine those reasons more carefully if we want to conserve resources and support our farmers. Fourth, food freight is shifting to less sustainable modes. More food, for instance, is being shipped by transport truck instead of train. Fifth, road transport is publicly subsidized because highways are built and maintained with taxpayers’ money. We are inadvertently putting more trucks on the road and taking more farmers off the land because we are not charging the full cost of using that infrastructure. Finally, there is an increasing environmental and monetary cost of transport as climate systems are stressed from greenhouse gas emissions and our bodies are stressed from transport pollution.


Determining energy use or GHG (and other) emissions in the food system help us understand where we most effectively can reduce our consumption of finite resources (such as oil or coal) and reduce our polluting emissions. Studies of energy use in the US food system show that the major energy-using phases of the system are processing and packaging (more than 20% of total energy use) or the household storage and preparation phase at 25% or 31%, depending on the source.

To effectively reduce our consumption of non-renewable fuels, and emissions of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants, the studies reviewed strongly suggest the following:

• Reduce the consumption of junk food with empty calories;
• Where possible, replace the use of synthetic fertilizer, particularly nitrogen fertilizer, with local sources of nitrogen such as cover crops and animal manures;
• Reduce dependence on refrigeration and freezing because they are very energy-intensive in the food system. These are particularly important for long-distance food transport. Low-energy alternative food storage and preservation methods can be used in a local food system;
• Reduce food waste because it accounts for one quarter of all food sold; and
• Shift diets to correspond to food available locally in season.

Food for thought

How can we reduce energy use in the food system?
Were you surprised by the amount of waste in the food system (I know I was!), how do you reduce waste?
What policy recommendations would you make to reduce food miles and increase energy efficiency?

Yours in Food,


2 thoughts on “Food Miles Book Club: Energy and Transportation

  1. Pingback: Food Miles Book Club: Economic Benefits and the Food Dollar « Adventures in Local Food

  2. Pingback: Food Miles Book Club: Social Benefits and the Food Community « Adventures in Local Food

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