Why Is Food the Only Product with a Carbon Footprint?

My favorite In-Defense-of-Slow-Food-Inc type food — i.e., locally grown or raised by small farmers with nothing artificial using only wind-powered barns that houses cows that live in the bovine version of Canyon Ranch spa — is Natural by Nature milk. Which we do buy in this house, although we always call it Naughty by Nature. But I just adore the name ‘Natural by Nature.’ How many “natures” can we cram in this name here? Only one? That’s not nature-y enough! We must stand out from our competitors, Artifice by Nature and Mechanics by Nature!

Last night, I was listening to Marketplace on NPR and there was a piece on how to have a climate-friendly meal. Low carbon footprint, reduced food miles, etc. The answer, it turned out, was something involving oysters, kale, and turnips and which everyone on the radio insisted was Really Delicious, and climate-friendly too! Although forgive this listener for suspecting that, like many dishes that vegetarians or otherwise healthy eaters concoct on a restricted diet, ‘Really Delicious’ only applies if your taste buds haven’t acclimatized away from, you know, delicious food.

But it got me wondering. Why is there an obsession with the shipping of food products, and not much concern about the greenhouse emissions of other kinds of shipping? Why do environmentalists focus so much of their energy (so to speak) on food? Why is bottled water the sole villain here? Lots of stuff is shipped internationally. Why aren’t activists focusing on that? Is there something I’m missing? Is purchasing online more wasteful than buying in a store? Would be useful to know. Now, there are some people talking about it (inconclusively, and with a scribbled-on-a-napkin sort of math – would be nice to see a real study). But why doesn’t it trickle down into the community the way food does? Our local Whole Foods labels where all its produce is from. I know of no other kind of store, even one that caters to the solar panel set, that does that. It may well be that I am out of touch and people are beating the drum about this. But I don’t hear it. What am I missing?

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. A former commenter of mine has made the case that global trade is terrible for the environment and global warming. I never had a great response. My own answer on you’re question is of an uncharitable nature. I see a lot of the talk about carbon footprints as a justification for what we think people should be doing anyways for other reasons.

    • My answer is also sort of uncharitable, and it has to do with speculating that this is so for much the same reason that many people commonly pray around the dinner table. When it comes to mealtimes, we often have religion on the brain.

      I realize this may come across as a broad snark about either religion, or environmentalism; it is not intended as such, as I have no particular beef with either. I merely mean to point out that there can be certain traits or behaviors held in common.

  2. I have no answer to your question.

    But both your first and second paragraphs conclude with sentences I can only describe as works of genius.

  3. Eric Idle, who had such a miserable childhood that at 70 he’s still compensating for it, often remarks that the headmaster at his school used to call him “Idle by name, Idle by nature.”

  4. 1) Shipping water (including soda) is just really stupid. Particularly when you’re shipping Atlanta Tap Water to NYC (which has the best water in the country!)
    2) Food’s easy to argue. Tomatoes in particular taste better the closer to home. Ditto apples, and tons of produce. Plus people are innately more willing to spend money on food than on … say, oil or gas.

  5. A few years back I read an article about how you were going to soon see much better quality wine sold in boxes. The rationale was that it prolonged the life of the wine and, more importantly cut down on shipping costs. This was more an economic decision than an environmental one on the part of the wineries, but I’m curious to learn if it caught on.

    • I have heard that Black Box wine tastes about as good as a 10 dollar bottle of wine (that’s 3 liters for 20 bucks!). Similar things have been said about Bota Box.

      Not being a wino, but more of a wine connoisseur, I wouldn’t know.

      • We got Black Box (and one other one….Pepperwood?) a few times in the last couple of months. I have to admit that I was pretty impressed, at least with the whites. I remain skeptical about red wine out of a box.

        • Great, now we’ll need to look for TWO Black Boxes after airline disasters.

  6. I’d expect that one reason it’s not talked about is the difficulty to actually calculate these things. Another issue is that food is 100% relatable to everyone. Everyone eats and most people buy their food at a physical store. Not many folks buy groceries “online” or such.

    That’s verses other products than can be purchased online or in physical stores.

    • Some cities and even suburbs have grocery delivery services, such as PeaPod. I wonder if these are more or less “green” than going to the super market one’s self. One truck making rounds might be preferable to a score of cars trekking to the store. But it might be far worse than folks who walk or take public transportation. It’ll be interesting to see if online grocery shopping becomes more prevalent going forward.

        • Can’t watch it at work but will at home. As someone who enjoys Chipotle (and before that, Anna’s in Boston) a little bit too much but hasn’t lived within 20 miles of one since his days in Rockville, MD, I would gladly welcome a targeted burrito drone strike on my mouth.

          • a targeted burrito drone strike on my mouth.

            You kids. In my day we just called it a hummer.

          • That particular euphemism made all the “Lebron Jame’s Mom Gave Him a Hummer” headlines uniquely enjoyable.

      • I’ve been commenting on this here and there, but I think home delivery actually makes much more sense from an energy usage (and therefore environmental) standpoint. Some of it is my contrarianism to the whole “global warming and/or rising energy prices will force us all to move into more densely packed zones with public transportation (which, coincidentally, I think we should all be doing anyway because it’s a more fulfilling way to live)” issue. But the more I think about it, the more there is something to it.

        • I mean, if the grocery store model itself is preferable to everyone driving back and forth to the farm, why wouldn’t a traveling grocery store be more preferable still? Seems to make sense for most communities.

          Will, you think more densely packed zones is a more fulfilling way to live? I wouldn’t have pegged you as such. Interesting!

          • That’s the perspective I was bring contrarian to, not necessarily my own. That being said, I conceptually find New York City (for instance) to be fascinating. If we could figure out a way to combine density with low costs, I’d be intrigued. I wanted to live in downtown when I was younger, but my jobs were always in the suburbs and downtown was always so expensive.

          • Pop Up Grocery Stores are where its at.

            We have one down the road from us. opens once every two weeks. Accepts foodstamps.

          • Ahhh…. so my hunch was accurate. I loved the city when I lived there but don’t think I’d want to live downtown longterm or raise a child there. I like living in the shadow of a big city, in what I call a suburb but which most of the country would call a still-very-urban environment.

          • And, no, that is not what I would consider the place I life now. I live in what most people would call the suburbs but which I call the sticks.

        • Umm… you want me to cite studies on “it’s a more fulfilling way to live”? ;-P
          Seriously, I love the country too…

          • Feel free to cite them. I really don’t have much of a preference so much as I believe that the masses have a preference.

        • The majority of “food miles’ associated with any piece of food is the transit from retailer to the home. Commercial shipping is carefully optimised for efficiency, while the average car ride is not.

          • Yes. But I walk home. Or I buy from the grocery store… once a month. When theentire backseat AND trunk is completely packed (enough to affect the steering, gee 50lb bags of sugar)…

      • Yeah but even in the city it is tough to do the delivery. I don’t want my stuff brought to the office (so I can lug it home on the bus).

  7. I guess I’m the outlier here, as I semi-often hear about the carbon footprint of other products. This plays into the Canadian nationalist concern paranoia about only being a resource-based economy*, ie, we harvest all our natural resources, ship them somewhere else then have the finished products shipped back. That leads to a ton of pollution.

    *I don’t buy into most of the concerns, but the environmental argument is valid. It doesn’t necessarily trump everything else, but you can’t just dismiss it out-of-hand.

  8. Has anyone see the documentary “No Impact Man”? Or maybe it is “Zero Impact Man”? Regardless, it follows a man’s attempt to live without making an impact, slowly adjusting his lifestyle including shopping only at the local farmer’s market, biking or walking to work, and cutting off electricity. I found the guy sort of insufferable, especially since he spent most of the documentary ignoring the fact that he lived in Manhattan and thus many of those things were options for him in a way they wouldn’t be for the vast majority of Americans. But in the end he visits some other areas of the city (I believe Harlem and/or the South Bronx) and realizes that his individual efforts amount to very little in the grand scheme and that there are far more impactful choices he can make that wouldn’t risk driving his wife insane. Not the best documentary and, again, I found the guy kind of annoying, but it touches on broader efforts to account for our carbon impact beyond just food. I caught it on Netflix streaming so maybe it is still available there.

  9. Good question!

    My favorite localvore story was published a few years ago in the New York Times and featured Portland (of course). The article was about localvore culture in Portland and there was a near-fist fight between two reatauranters about whether a nearby pig farm counted as local or not. One claimed it was just a bit too fair out of the radius to count.


    Otherwise like the good doctor, I have no idea. Perhaps we feel like food is the one thing that can be really local without causing too much downshifting in lifestyle. For other goods like books, cars, electronics, computers, and everything else, it would be impossible to be localvore. Imagine if there was a movement for local computer building. If you want an MacBook, you need to get one that was built within 200 miles of your house or apartment. No one would have computers. At some point, a component or part would need to come from far away.

    Perhaps you can have localvorism for furniture though. But even then it would raise the prices (but also probably increase the quality).

  10. I can’t remember where I came across the link, but a few months ago, I read a pretty persuasive argument that buying local in a lot of cases actually increases one’s carbon footprint. The premise of the argument was that most food products from elsewhere are shipped in such bulk and by relatively efficient methods that on a per unit basis, it’s actually less of a carbon footprint than transporting food in smaller quantities by truck from comparatively local sources. There are obviously limits to this theory – some goods are sufficiently local that higher per mile costs aren’t much of a factor, and obviously goods that are transported by air freight have a really high carbon footprint – but I found it persuasive with respect to the majority of goods.

    I was able to find a version of the argument here: http://phys.org/news148754503.html

    But I can’t seem to find the specific argument that I found persuasive.

    • And of course, one’s carbon footprint isn’t the only reason one might wish to buy local – supporting your local farmer is a totally legitimate purpose in and of itself, and farm fresh fruit often just tastes better.

    • The NPR piece Rose mentioned (which I also caught) touched on the possible benefits of bulk shipping over local sourcing.

      • There’s also the reality that we’d have to choose to eliminate a lot of things from our diet that we might like to keep eating. We can grow bananas in SE Michigan, but it would actually require a larger carbon footprint to do so, what with all the heated greenhouses and such. And peaches, although those I’d be happy to do without.

        And the southern U.S. will have to largely give up apples, which just don’t grow as productively in warmer climes.

        • This is true but I think it poses less of a burden than you might think. Even in the desert it’s possible to grow a wide variety of produce fairly sustainably. I think people who knew better would rather eat fresh dates, figs, pomegranates, and cactus pears than dusty apples and cardboard tomatoes. And Mother Nature will probably force our hand soon anyway if California’s Central Valley gets much more saline.

          • I think people who knew better would rather eat fresh dates, figs, pomegranates, and cactus pears than dusty apples and cardboard tomatoes.

            If only people knew better, their taste preferences would be just like mine. Right. Because my dislike of the taste of dates and figs is just about my lack of knowledge.

          • James, I’m saying that all things equal, fresh fruits are going to taste better than supermarket specimens. Of course people have different tastes. I’m just pushing back against your apparent assumption that switching to a local diet is necessarily gonna be a huge sacrifice.

          • fresh… MANGOS! Oh, my lord, some fresh mangos from Las Vegas. Absolutely stupendous.

          • Robert,

            My point is that an all local diet either means an increase in carbon footprint or it means we give up certain foods that we like. It’s not just about switching from mass produced eggs to free range eggs, it means not eating bananas or peaches or apples if they don’t grow well in your area. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how fresh the figs are, or that the bananas from Costa Rica were picked when they were hard green nubs, the bananas still taste a lot better to me, they’re more desirable to me, and to discuss that in terms of “knowing better” is to misunderstand the dynamics of human taste.

            I can’t for the life of me understand why my kids dislike cucumbers, and I like to tease them, but I’d never seriously think of telling them they’d like the taste if the “knew better.”

          • Taste is obviously highly personal. I was hoping that my interlocutors would be more charitable, but really I only have myself to blame for not being more articulate.

            Anyway, I still think it’s fair to say that there are lots of people who could stand to benefit from knowing more about local produce. I myself didn’t know about prickly pear farming until recently, and I’m still learning.

          • Thing is, Robert, most folks who really like food want to add to their food repertoire, not limit it. I’d try cactus pears in a heartbeat….butif I like them, well, I’m gonna have to have them imported to SE Michigan. And while I’ll still shop the local farmers’ market when I’m of a mind to (minus any sense of smug moral superiority, I hope), I’ll still want someone to put those delicious pears on a damn truck and burn carbon bringing it to my town.

          • James,
            umm… sure. Most of the good produce doesn’t ship well. Asparagus has a completely different flavor when fresh. Same with sweet corn (sugar dropoff for the farm stuff happens within hours).

            You really want square apples? Fine. But don’t expect them to taste like good apples, because they really don’t.

            Hell, honeycrisps can’t be stored worth anything, because they’re silly water-cored apples.

            If you breed plants for shipping, you tend to lose taste. (of course, if you breed them for size, you also lose taste: see strawberries).

          • I love Gala apples. Half the year (at least) they come from New Zealand. Still taste great. Local apples (in season) taste great too.

            Moreover – in Canada in winter, my fruit and vegetable options can be “local nothing”, or they can be imported.

            I agree with the other commenters – many people would be happy to add local foods to their diets, but they’re not going to give up everything else or spontaneously decide that shipped food tastes awful. Because, well, it doesn’t.

        • This is true. Everyone’s diet would go through a massive shift. Even the most ardent localvores probably drink something like Tropicana Orange Juice.

          Though I wonder how much weight my romantic-pastoral idea has.

          • Christ, I’d have to give up oranges and orange juice entirely. Now that’s a cost.

            What really bugs me is that reconstituted OJ has the lowest carbon footprint, because you can ship so many more units per gallon of fuel. But it tastes like crap to me, compared the stuff that’s packed in jugs and trucked in its heavyweight version.

          • Pick up some of that tic-tac flavoring. Try adding that to your reconstituted OJ.

            After all, that’s exactly what they do with the “fresh” stuff. They only juice oranges a few months a year, after all.


            You really can taste the difference.

            (and I personally have nothing against folks shipping around some stuff. Canned tomatoes are a fine way to ship ripe tomatoes. I do wish folks would eat /somewhat/ like what Mama Nature “intended” (apples in the winter, strawberries first fruit of spring…). Keeps ya a bit closer to the earth and the seasons).

  11. Personally, the two biggest factors for me when purchasing food are taste and health. I don’t subscribe to any overarching eating philosophy outside of, “Eat more food, eat less stuff.” I try to cut down on processed foods, though am not dogmatic about it. I find a lot of the stuff I get at the farmer’s market to be more flavorful than what I get at the chain grocer. I do *not* notice a taste difference between organic and non-organic and, thus, do not spend the extra dough unless I happen to prefer the organic product for other reasons. If my purchasing habits prove to be better for the local economy or environment, that’s gravy. But as long as they are not actively and knowingly destructive to either, it doesn’t really weigh on my conscious. Does that make me a bad liberal?

    • The eggs we get from our friends who raise their own free-range chickens and ducks have ruined me for the pallid imitations we get from the grocery store.

      • There’s definitely something to that. We had essentially free-range chickens on the farm I grew up on. And they spent their days happily scratching in the dirt and pecking at bugs. And that meant that the chickens that were laying the eggs were more naturally and properly nourished which meant the eggs were better tasting and more nutritious.

        • I prefer grass-fed beef to corn-fed beef. I prefer handmade bread from the local baker to Wonder bread. The locally grown tomatoes at the farmer’s market usually taste better than the store ones.

          But sometimes I want a Big Mac. Or I want tomatoes on a Tuesday but the farmer’s market is open until Sunday. So I take that route and don’t let it eat at me. Life’s too short to be dogmatic.

        • When I was investigating doing a grass-fed beef operation here in Louisiana, I inspected a small operation which paired grass fed beefers with chickens. They’d move the cattle from area to area, keeping each section grazed down in turn. They had a mobile hen house which would follow on the cattle: the chickens kept down the maggots and flies. The chickens would go up into the trailer to lay their eggs and roost at night.

          I’ve got a scheme in mind to feed chickens on Hermetia illucens grubs. Also thinking about feeding crawfish the same diet. High in calcium, competes with the disease-carrying fruit fly, converts waste with incredible speed: they work so fast the stuff doesn’t even have time to start stinking. Thing is, feeding chickens, they require extra calcium for eggshells, bones, beaks and the like. Why not revert to the insects their ancestors fed upon? Seems a bit too obvious.

  12. DK has ‘carbon neutral’ cabs and public transport.

    They’re big on the whole ‘no carbon footprint’ thing.

  13. They could probably cram a few more nature words in there. Naturally Natural by Natural Nature, Naturally.

    • Just so long as it’s not “Bottled by Naturists!”

      Or if it is, I hope they are wearing hair nets.

      • I swear, I saw the first line of your comment in the sidebar and immediately thought “hair nets”. One of us is redundant.

        • Well, you have seniority, so that’s bad news for me.

          Maybe we could be a comedy writing team.

          I’ll call Coke-Encrusted Hollywood Exec.

          • Geez, let me clarify….I mean “seniority” in the sense in how long you’ve been here.

            I’m not an ageist.

            Besides, old guys can be funny motherfishers. 😉

            I’ll be your Statler, if you’ll be my Waldorf.

          • If you tell me that I’m looking well, all things considered, I’m going to pop you one.

  14. Rose,

    I design fashion. There are books on the industry, most recently, Overdressed.

    Many of the designers I know work to include green production into their products, they also capitalize on green marketing whenever possible. On the design forums, it’s a constant topic of discussion.

    Several cars advertise their footprint, Toyota and Subaru stand out, but I don’t see much TV advertising.

    I don’t think it’s just food; but food’s something we need every single day, so we notice it more.

    • I realize it likely varies by state, but here, electricity has a pretty big carbon-footprint recognition. I can choose my mix, purchasing from different generators; and optons include oil/hydro (at least 40% hydro), wind, natural gas, and bio-fuel (wood waste). The low-footprint options are more expensive.

      I can also generate my own, and sell excess back to the grid.

  15. I had another thought. This one does not so much deal with economics but with romanticism.

    Local food can bring us back to a simple and in rose-tinted glasses more pastoral time. Thinking that modern life is too hectic, chaotic, complex, confusing, etc is a very human and universal thing. All but the most ardent and hardcore (and possibly even them) city-dwellers has moments of wanting to escape from the rat race and step into something resembling Tolkien’s Shire.

    Locally grown food is a way of doing and possibly the only way. Our electronic goods require us to acknowledge the importance of living in a complex and globalized economy that relies heavily on abstract knowledge and materials from around the globe. Buying local food makes things seem more like the Shire. The farmer, dairyperson, cheesemaker, etc is your neighbor. We can imagine the supermarket as a Farmer’s market filled with our other neighbors and not strangers. It makes the world seem more quaint and personal.

  16. I just want to make it absolutely clear that if The They demand I stop drinking coffee, I’m going to flip out.

    • They can have my Peet’s when they pry it from my warm* dead hands.

      *because I was holding the mug, of course.

    • I’m going to have a massive headache for several weeks.

      I’d also trouble over oranges.

      /scurvy can be fought off with a tea of pine needles.

      • Hey zic, I forgot to tell you, on the migraine/headache front – pineapples. Can’t eat ’em (or drink the juice). If you eat them, try cutting them out (alternately, pay attention next time you eat them; they hit me fast, within the hour).

        • Thanks.

          Not big in my diet. Once in a while, if they’re really fresh and smell heavenly.

          Fish and (sad sad sad sad) corn of late. Literally can no longer eat popcorn! And alcohol. I really miss deep-brown/red beer.

          But my favorite new drink rocks. 1/4 cup chaga tea, chilled, a shot of elderberry concentrate, a Tbsp. of maple syrup, and cold spring water to make 12 oz. I’m going to try making root beer with those ingredients; perhaps a sprig or two of wintergreen.

        • Glyph, I thanked you, but wilt in moderation.

          Apollo, where are you when I need you most? All things in moderation, including moderation.

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