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(Published: 2007-10-23)

It’s awfully dark out there when you get out of bed these mornings. Soon, we’ll be setting our clocks back in an effort to manually adjust nature’s cycles for our own convenience. In many ordinary ways, we’ve lost the natural rhythm and cycles of life.

We change our clocks to keep dark at bay by trying to extend the light of summer. We take melatonin to fight off jet lag. We eat food that is out of season and not indigenous to our locale. Did you know that on average, the food on your plate has traveled over 1,500 miles to become part of your dinner?

There’s been a lot of press lately on the subject of food miles. Much of it has to do with measuring a product’s carbon footprint. Even using sophisticated “carbon calculators,” determining ‘food to fork” miles is not as simple as you might think. There are a lot of hidden factors to consider.

James E. McWilliams of the International Herald Tribune, recently reported on a study that scientists at Lincoln University in New Zealand conducted. Paradoxically, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it locally.

How can that be? The study showed that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-rich pastures and shipped to 11,000 miles to market by boat produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton, while the lamb raised in Britain (on scrabble pastures that force farmers to use feed) produced 6,280 pounds of Co2 per ton, taking into account things like water use, harvesting techniques of the feed, fertilizer outlays, storage procedures, and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Food will always have to travel. Our current era of globalization, specialization, consolidation, and vertical integration, not to mention the increasingly sophisticated palates of well-traveled consumers, have helped transform a once local food system into one that is primarily global.

Trend: Fusion food (blending ingredients, dishes and techniques from far-flung cultures) is proliferating. There’s a local eatery here in Minneapolis called Sushi Tango…a meld of Ethiopian/Thai/sushi, that’s developed a cult-like following. Everything is super fresh. (There’s no tuna in our Minnesota lakes, so you can imagine how many air miles the tuna has traveled.)

Countertrend: A few miles up Hennepin Avenue is our local Farmer’s Market, where you can buy corn that traveled less than 15 miles to market, and tomatoes that are so sexy you will swoon. If you’ve ever bought fresh peaches at the supermarket, taken them home and bitten into the beautifully formed fruit, only to end up with a mouth full of mealy mush that tastes like a cross between cardboard and school paste, you can understand the allure of a Farmer’s Market.

Once a mainstay of Main Street, Farmer’s Markets are on the rise. The Department of Agriculture reports that from 1994 to 2002, this country experienced a 79% increase in local Farmer’s Markets operating in the U.S. The number of farmers who sell at them has more than tripled.

There are a lot of reasons to buy local. The most obvious is freshness. Food bought at your local market was probably harvested less than 24 hours prior to purchase. Then there’s taste. Local farmers can breed varieties for taste and beauty, rather than for shipping and shelf live. The carbon footprint is far less too. Much of the produce is grown organically and has traveled less than 25 miles from where it was harvested. There’s also a transparency issue. With so many food safety issues and recalls these days, it’s comforting to know where exactly where your food came from, and in some cases to know the grower on a first-name basis.

If you’re like most consumers these days, you probably exhibit contradictory shopping behavior. You’ll continue to enjoy enticing ethnic flavors and exotic delicacies from around the world, while at the same time you’ll make the most of regional and seasonal specialties in your area. That’s what I call “glocal.”

It’s important to realize that your local actions can ripple in all directions to the influence of the larger global system. By acting locally we often are acting globally. It’s a bit of an “Inconvenient Truth,” but on average, imported ingredients use 650 times the amount of carbon dioxide, due to petroleum—intensive food transport.

Barbara Kingsolver has a great new book out called “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” It describes her self-imposed exile from the world-wide industrial food pipeline to a rural life in which her family vows to eat only food raised in their own neighborhood, grown themselves, or live without it. If you think that’s crazy, she suggests that we “recall that whatever lofty things you might accomplish today, you will do them only because you first ate something that grew out of dirt.”

Now there’s something to chew on!

Farm fresh produce

Kingsolver's new book.

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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