The Environmental Cost of Food

 When it comes to food, we all want the best of the best. We want food that tastes good, is good for us, and we want to feel good about what we are buying. At the same time, we are spoiled by the convenience of supermarkets that can provide us with consistent produce and exotic ingredients year-round. Even if what you want is not in season or grows in another country, you can most likely find it on the shelf. Not having to think about the origin and impact of our food is a modern day privilege, and a curse. The solution? Buying local and organic food that is fresh and less damaging to the environment.

Buy Local

Purchasing fresh, local food eliminates the waste and emissions that come with packaging, transportation and distribution, making it a more sustainable option. Summer is a great time to take advantage of the best foods grown locally in Massachusetts, including carrots, strawberries, spinach and summer squash.

Buying food locally drastically decreases the amount of resources used to get the produce from the farm to your table. Most food products in the U.S. travel an average of 1,500 miles to reach your plate! Many foods also require refrigeration during their transport. That’s a huge amount of energy use and CO2 emissions that can be reduced by purchasing food grown in your area. 

Packaging food for transport to prevent it from spoiling and getting crushed or bruised can be a substantial, and often overlooked, energy consumer and waste producer in the food system. An evaluation of the energy use of conventionally produced food in the United States found that in some cases the energy used for packaging is more than the combined energy used in production, processing and transportation. Include the resources used for labelling a product and it can add up to a lot of paper, plastic, water and energy waste.


How much can we save?





1lb bag baby carrots from Bolthouse Farms

2592 miles by plane from Bakersfield, CA to Boston, MA

2.1kg CO2

The CO2 emitted from burning 3.2 lbs of coal

2lb strawberries from Driscoll’s

3196 miles by plane from Baja, Mexico to Boston, MA

5.1kg CO2

The CO2 emitted by the average American car driving 12.1 miles

10oz spinach from Fresh Express

2299 miles by plane from Leon, Mexico to Boston, MA

1.2kg CO2

The CO2 emitted from burning 1.3 lbs of coal

1.5 lb bag sweet mini peppers from Sunset

2699 miles by plane from Salinas, CA to Boston, MA

3.3kg CO2

The CO2 emitted by the average American car driving 7.9 miles


Buy Organic

Another way to reduce your environmental impact is to buy certified organic food (extra points if it’s local, too!). According to the USDA, organic food is defined as food that has been grown without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, radiation, hormones, antibiotics or genetic engineering. Without these chemicals, organic food can be better for both the environment and your health! 

Because chemicals are not used at a high level on organic farms, the soil is able to retain more water and nutrients than the soil on conventional farms. The ability of the soil to accept and store water can help reduce water erosion and the amount of water runoff that can wash fertilizers into nearby rivers and lakes. Nutrients are good for the soil, as well as the organisms and plants that grow and live in it, and more nutrient-rich soil can greatly reduce the risk of groundwater pollution. These characteristics of organic soil make it better for the environment and those who eat food from it.

Organic agriculture is also good for the environment because organic soil can sequester, or take in, more carbon than soil on conventional farms. According to studies in the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST), data has revealed that soil under organic agriculture management can accumulate about 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre-foot of soil each year. In this 23-year study, they also found that when grain production systems changed from conventional to organic practices, soil carbon increased from 15% to 28%. Soil that takes in more carbon is good for the environment because it means there is less carbon in the atmosphere where it could contribute to climate change.

In general, organic farms also use less fossil fuel energy than conventional farming systems. According to a study done by the Natural Resources Management and Environment Department at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, organic agriculture uses less fossil fuel based inputs and has a better carbon footprint than conventional agriculture because conventional production uses energy-intensive fertilizers, chemicals and concentrated feed. Conventional farming also uses fossil fuel energy in the “manufacturing of synthetic inputs,” which, according to the study, is the second largest greenhouse gas contributor besides methane emissions from animals on livestock farms. Organic agriculture doesn't use these pesticides and fertilizers so it doesn't need to use these large amounts of fossil fuel energy, which releases greenhouse gases into the environment that contribute to global warming.

The fact that organic soil can sequester more nutrients, water and carbon than conventional farming is a huge factor in its environmental influence. This is one of its biggest selling points because the organic soil's high retention level means that it doesn't damage the environment and it even helps the environment by lowering the amount of atmospheric carbon.

Choosing to buy local and organic food is a great way to eat healthy, fresh and sustainably this season. For ways to use these ingredients in summer dishes, check out the SBN article "The Best Summer Dishes, Using In-Season Ingredients!"

email: [email protected]    |    phone: (617) 395-0250

Home Back To Top