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Transportation is  part of the energy cost embedded in food production and getting food to the table. Buying locally-grown foods reduce the energy costs.  

Local produce - A recipe for a better environment

by Lorena Villa-Parkman
July 12, 2012

Locavores -  Chicago residents rushing through the streets carrying bags of fresh kale, locally produced mushrooms and heirloom tomatoes.

On the weekends, they wake up at impossible hours and rush out to get the best produce before it runs out at farmers markets. They try new vegetables, they smell the fruit, they carefully choose and caress a bouquet of flowers.

They seek out other options for finding food produced close to home, too. Food coops that pay farmers upfront for a share of local crops, aquaponics farming that can turn weathered warehouses or part of an apartment into urban horticulture centers and grow-your-own urban gardens are all part of the growing locavore culture.

“A lot of food we consume comes from thousands of miles away”, said Mario Spatafora, cofounder of 312 Aquaponics, a Chicago company that develops indoor sustainable food production systems and techniques using fish to provide nutrients
for specialty food production for future implications.


“It costs energy, fuel and money to bring produce to Chicago. By growing the food here you are saving the environment and from a scientific standpoint, at Aquaponics, we don´t use petroleum based products to grow plants, no pesticides,” Spatafora said.

Aquaponics involves raising fish in tanks and growing food hydroponically at the top of the tanks. The fish waste provides a nutrient source for the plants and the plants in turn provide a filter for the water tanks in which the fish live. 


And 312 Aquaponics offers home aquaponic systems that could provide a family of four with harvests of lettuces, some vegetables and herbs. A $500 to $1,000 investment for the system can provide a source for fish and some produce for years.

Meanwhile, small farms providing local food are on the rise in Illinois.  

According to the GO TO 2040 plan from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the number of farms growing produce for people in the area grew in all but one county in the region between 2002 and 2007. The number of small farmers increased in 2007, regionally, nationally and statewide. And the number of certified-organic farms in the Illinois region increased from seven to 45 in recent years.

“The produce is fresher and more flavorful and there´s more money in the local economy, reduced environmental impact, investment in a local workforce, and if the farm is actually organic, less exposure of the environment and workers to pesticides,” said Pamela Martin, assistant professor of the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, about the benefits of buying local.

Eating local means energy savings in as the carbon footprint from shipping food around the globe adds to the greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.

For example, a pineapple traveling from San José, Costa Rica to Washington, D.C., on an airplane would create 1,625 pounds of CO2, according to the Food Mile Calculator of Organic Linker eco directory. This equals 82.6 gallons of gasoline consumed.

The transportation sector is the second-largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the region, after energy use in buildings. Most of the transportation emissions are from on-road sources, with most of that from passenger vehicles or trucks, according to the GO TO 2040 plan.

For a local farm outside the city, with simple calculations based on truck size and distance to the farms, the transportation costs in terms of energy can be significantly lower, said Martin.

Something to keep in mind is that transportation is just a part of the energy embedded in food production and getting food to our table. 

“If you could raise everything you need in your house, you would not have fossil fuels spent” for food, Goldsmith said. “But that’s impossible to do right now. However, this doesn’t necessary mean that the tomato brought in from California always has a larger carbon print than local tomato.”

The reason? If the local tomato producer has more weeds and more pests and uses more fungicide, then that's an added consideration. Maybe the guy in California doesn’t need to use it and then the carbon footprint decreases, Goldsmith said.

“There´s a rich dynamic argument all over the world,” Goldsmith said. “Small countries like New Zealand that export to Europe are being hit by people thinking that they shouldn´t buy anything from there because it has a high carbon footprint. Yes, it´s a long way to travel but at New Zealand there´s no carbon being used while producing.”

Farms can minimize energy use in other ways as well, Martin said. “For local farms following sustainable agricultural practices, the emissions savings can potentially be associated with both transportation and the actual growing, minimizing off-farm inputs.”

Local consumption generally means buying closer to the source of food, but the other option is for people to personally start producing their own food, explained Peter D. Goldsmith, Associate Professor and Interim Director of the Food and Agribusiness Management Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In Chicago, urban farms are scattered around the city such as the Jackson Park Urban Farm and Community Allotment Garden, located at the intersection of Cornell and Marquette drives or the Iron Street Urban Farm at 3333 S. Iron St.

Rogers Park residents have plots at the Howard Area Community Gardens at Jonquil Terrace, one of Chicago´s only large scale allotment gardens and there´s also North Lawndale Green Youth Farm at 3539 W. Ogden, a program that works with area youth to bring produce to market.

“Another part of the movement is Community Supportive Agriculture,” said Goldsmith. “It´s when you give money to the farmer beforehand and then the farmer delivers produce to you. There´s a lot of ways to get involved in local food consumption like going to farmers markets and eating out at restaurants specialized in local foods.”

In some cases, people in a food coop pay for rights of a crop and take turns picking up the foods each week.

However, anyway you look at it, it´s hard for anyone to become totally local

“If we became an isle of localness some of our diets would become totally bland,” Goldsmith. “You need other parts of the world, you need California or Florida. Localness is great, very exciting, but it´s rough. It has constraints.” It would be very expensive to try and produce in Illinois during winter what others states produce all year round.

Another way to lower the carbon footprint associated with our diet is to change our diet to eating more food in season. Incorporating changes in diet aside, it´s important to look at not just where the food is grown but also how.