Food Miles: The Odyssey from Farm to Table

The distance our produce travels from farm to table is increasing rapidly. A look at how much consumer preference is increasing the vulnerability of our food supply chains:

In grocery stores across the country, Americans have ample produce options 24/7, 365 days of the year. The extent of produce availability is so expansive that grocery stores are publishing guides to help navigate their year-round available selection of hundreds of produce items. (And with good reason. Consumers are inundated with options). But what is the cost of this system?

According to a Whole Foods customer produce guide, "Apples are available year-round because of their impressive lasting power". This is a misleading statement. The primary mechanism propping up constant availability of produce like apples is in reality the revolution of food transport from farm to table, more specifically the dramatically increased distances that food travels from harvest to consumer markets. The average distance that produce travels is drastically outpacing the rate of American population growth as well as rate of produce consumption. According to a study conducted at Iowa State University, 39% of fruit in American grocery stores was grown outside of the United States. 

Average produce travel distances to consumer markets have doubled in the past 50 years.
Average produce travel distances to consumer markets have doubled in the past 50 years. 

But what does this increased distance mean? Nutritionally speaking, it means that  produce is harvested well before reaching ripeness in anticipation of large transport distances to market. Produce ages not on the vine but in truck beds on highways, decreasing quality and nutritional content.

In terms of efficiency and yield, increased distances exacerbate the issue of produce spoilage before market arrival and generally decrease reliability in our supply chains. Worldwatch Research Associate and food author Brian Halweil reiterates, "the further we ship food the more vulnerable our food system becomes". 

The majority of fresh produce in the US originates from states such as California.
The majority of fresh produce in the US originates from states such as California. 

Long distance shipping is particularly pervasive in the United States produce infrastructure. Some US produce distribution facts:

- Washington State grows more than half of the apples Americans buy in stores each year.

- Less than 10% of climates in the US are suitable for commercially growing Avocados, one of the only types of produce to grow in American popularity every year in the past 15 years.

- California grows:
     99 % of artichokes
     99 % of walnuts
     97 % of kiwis
     97 % of plums
     95 % of celery
     95 % of garlic
     89 % of cauliflower
     71 % of spinach
     69 % of carrots sold in the US (and more, full list here)

The implications of this long-distance food system are far reaching and by-products such as increased produce spoilage will only become more acute in the future. At Hazel Technologies, we are developing solutions to prevent produce spoilage in our increasingly global produce supply chains, and to make our food system less vulnerable as a result. Check out our website today and be sure to follow us on Twitter!

About the Author

Pat Flynn

Hazel Technologies 

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