is organic worth it?



By Kelsey Thompson



























The map below shows how far this item traveled from the farm at which it was grown, to store shelves. The bar illustrates the number of tree seedlings, if grown for 10 years, would eventually offset the CO2 emissions from the trip depicted in the map.

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  • Item: Seedless Table Grapes

  • Grown in: San Joaquin Valley, CA

  • Miles travelled from farm to store: 2,155

  • Gallons of fuel: 331.54

  • CO2 Emissions per trip: 3,365.13kg

  • It would take 86.3 tree seedlings grown for 10 years to offset CO2 emissions

The map below shows how far this item traveled from the farm at which it was grown, to store shelves. The bar illustrates the number of tree seedlings, if grown for 10 years, would eventually offset the CO2 emissions from the trip depicted in the map.

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86
80
90
222

  • Item: Baby Portabella Mushrooms

  • Grown in: Western Washington, USA

  • Miles travelled from farm to store: 1,993

  • Gallons of fuel: 306.62

  • CO2 Emissions per trip: 3,112.2kg

  • It would take 79.8 tree seedlings grown for 10 years to offset CO2 emissions

The map below shows how far this item traveled from the farm at which it was grown, to store shelves. The bar illustrates the number of tree seedlings, if grown for 10 years, would eventually offset the CO2 emissions from the trip depicted in the map.

0
86
80
90
222

  • Item: Baby Spring Mix

  • Grown in: Monterey County, CA

  • Miles travelled from farm to store: 2,231

  • Gallons of fuel: 343.23

  • CO2 Emissions per trip: 3,483.78kg

  • It would take 89.3 tree seedlings grown for 10 years to offset CO2 emissions

The map below shows how far this item traveled from the farm at which it was grown, to store shelves. The bar illustrates the number of tree seedlings, if grown for 10 years, would eventually offset the CO2 emissions from the trip depicted in the map.

0
86
80
90
222

  • Item: Bananas

  • Grown in: Guacimo, Limon, Costa Rica

  • Miles travelled from farm to store: 5,540

  • Gallons of fuel: 852.31

  • CO2 Emissions per trip: 8,650.95kg

  • It would take 222 tree seedlings grown for 10 years to offset CO2 emissions


Walk into many supermarkets today and you will find a new addition to food labels– where it came from. Located next to the name and price, shoppers often now see “Grown in Guatemala” or “Farmed in North Carolina” on food products.

The ability to follow food from farm to fork–also called food traceability– is not a new field, but has recently increased in popularity and visibility. A wide variety of products, from kosher to locally grown to organic, depend on traceability to prove they are grown and produced as promised.

However, for organic food, traceability also highlights a key problem.

What exactly is organic food? While definitions can vary, organic is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as food “produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Producers of organic food may not use synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation or genetic engineering.

Despite standards that promote sustainable practices, organic food is often shipped long distances from farms to grocery store shelves. The question is whether or not the negative consequences long-distance transportation cancel out the positive environmental benefits of growing food organically.

According to Dr. Eric Masanet, leader of the Energy and Resource Systems Analysis Laboratory at Northwestern University, the answer is: it depends.

“The distance that food travels isn’t always the best indicator of how great it is or how environmentally friendly it is,” Masanet says, “That portion of the overall footprint of food is fairly small compared to the rest of the food chain, about 10 percent.”

There are exceptions though, including fresh fruits and vegetables. Masanet says that for any food requiring little to no processing, the number of miles it travels to reach store shelves is a good indicator of its environmental impact.

Based U.S. Department of Transportation data from 2007, food products in America travel an average of 305 miles per shipment, requiring about 47 gallons of gasoline per trip. The resulting CO2 emissions, 477.5 kilograms, require 12 tree seedlings to grow for ten years in order to offset the cost of the average trip. For many products, however, this cost pales in comparison to other parts of the production process that require much greater use of fossil fuels and generate other forms of waste. Overall, the local food economy is a good place to look for environmentally friendly and healthy food, but is not the only place to find food that meet these criteria.

So why should consumers care about how far their food travels and the consequences? Brian Sterling, president of SCS Consulting and Senior Program Advisor at the Institute of Food Technologists, provides a number of reasons.

“Partly for health, to find potential contaminants in products,” Sterling says, “But also to satisfy [customers’] curiosity because they’re so far removed from where the food is actually grown.”

And it seems that putting food traceability in the hands of consumers is a growing trend. Smartphone apps like HarvestMark and Where Food Comes From allow consumers to trace individual products through QR readers at select stores. As technology and information improves, so will consumers’ ability to trace food themselves. Burgeoning technologies include radio frequency identification and DNA testing, explains Sterling, and they will likely be available to the public in the next six to eight years.

“Consumers will be able to do their own testing on food to find out exactly what is in it and say, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t Atlantic salmon, this was caught off the coast of Chile.‘ It’s the way things are moving.”

“...putting food traceability in the hands of consumers is a growing trend. Smartphone apps like HarvestMark and Where Food Comes From allow consumers to trace individual products through QR readers at select stores.”