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Volume Ten, Number Three   May 2005   www.columbiajournal.ca



High Fuel Costs = High Food Costs                    

Carole Pearson

Don’t drive a car? Non-motorists might think rising gas prices don’t affect them but they’ll feel the impact at the grocery store. Expect to see food prices rise as transportation costs increase.

Nowadays, food on the typical North American dinner plate has traveled an average of 1500 miles. In 2001, the Worldwatch Institute reported that food travels 25 percent further than 20 years ago.  In“The Farm Bill Gets Down on the Farm”, Washington Free Press reporter John Fawcett-Long writes, “Cheap fuel makes it more profitable to ship lettuce from Mexico than pay farm workers a decent wage if they live closer to where food is consumed.”

The average Canadian supermarket now sells oranges from China, grapes from Chile and apples from New Zealand. Canadian consumers expect to be able to purchase lettuce and strawberries in December. Bananas are the most popular fruit in Canada but, yes, we have no bananas grown here. These all have to be transported, mostly by tractor trailers or by air. From an economical and environmental standpoint, these are the two least fuel-efficient methods of transport, followed by rail and water.

 Fawcett-Long says, “Our food policy is buttressed by access to limitless, cheap fossil fuels.” As the price of oil rises, this is about to change. The high fuel costs related to transporting goods can only be passed along, meaning higher prices for distributors, retailers and, ultimately, consumers. According to Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, 6 to 12 percent of consumer dollars spent on food consumed at home goes to cover transportation costs. As this amount increases, some items may become so unprofitable they will disappear from grocery stores.

Over the past hundred years, cheap fossil fuels have allowed regions to become specialized in what they produce, whether crops or livestock, leaving the area with less locally-grown product diversity. As a result, consumers become dependent on national and international sources to supply them with a variety of produce.

“Food, Fuel, and Freeways”, a study by Iowa’s Leopold Center, reports that in1870, nearly 100 percent of all apples consumed in Iowa were grown there. By1999, it was down to only15 percent. As well, most Iowa farms no longer supply consumers directly but send their produce to out-of-state processing plants.

Speaking of apples, B.C. is the second largest producer of apples in Canada, after Ontario, but, according to Victoria’s Lifecycles Project Society, lunch boxes in B.C. are more likely to contain apples from New Zealand than ones that are BC-grown.

A 2004 B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries report states Canada imported more apples than it exported in the 2001/02 season. These come from the U.S., New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina. Despite our own apple industry, we are importing apples grown hundreds or thousands of miles away.

To help ameliorate the impact of rising gas prices on transportation costs, consumers can shop at farmers’ markets, community-supported agricultural enterprises, direct sales and on-farm stores. Produce purchased from farmers’ markets may travel only10 or 15 miles from field to table. Buy in-season local produce. Grow your own. Have an “Eat Here” potluck, using locally produced ingredients, and include local wines or beer. These are just some ways you can “beet” the system.





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