walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

doing the math on the locavore train

Ignoring, for the moment, all arguments for being a locavore other than the climate impact of food-miles, I'd like to hammer away at that food-miles idea for a moment. Specifically, whether that lettuce moved by truck or by rail.


This is another one of those, see, our product isn't that bad! The Carnegie Mellon guys said so! Whatever. Here's the bit I was after:

"Carbon dioxide emissions for air freight are 3.7 times those for truck, 37.7 times (yes – that’s nearly 40 times) those for rail transport and 48.5 times (nearly 50 times) those for ocean shipping by container, according to recent work by Weber and Matthews."

This suggests a 10X for rail vs. asphalt road. I _had_ been assuming more like a 4X, so the argument works either way.

A bunch of locavores have run up against the I-can't-get-wheat-or-beans-locally problem, because (and I think I've blogged about this before) it has been more economical to raise grains and beans in the Midwest and ship it than raise it within coastal regions and move it a much shorter distance for well over a hundred years now. Here's the math why Northeastern locavores should not give a fuck, but should instead just mail order their wheat and/or beans and have it shipped UPS or FedEx ground from Eden Organics or similar. Eden is in Clinton, MI (and thereabouts). To Boston or NYC, it is well under a thousand miles. At 10x, that's easily within the 100 truck miles limit. At 4x it's within the typically used for NYC 250 truck miles limit. How to guarantee it moves by rail for most of its trip? That'll happen automatically, as long as you pick the deliver it slooooowwwwly option, which, trust me, you will with 50 pound bags of grain or beans. UPS or FedEx will drop it at your house with a truck, but the boxes of bags are almost guaranteed to be moving on UPS or FedEx dedicated containers or trucks-on-flatbeds for most of their journey.

Now, this does _nothing_ to support the guy raising wheat down the road from you. If there _is_ a guy raising wheat down the road from you, by all means, buy his stuff -- you'll want to, because paying shipping to Eden Organics will double the price (and yet still will be a breakeven or better including paying for the electric mill to turn it into flour, when compared to buying those tiny bags of organic whole grain flour if you can even find it). But otherwise, if you're doing locavore stuff for food-miles/greenhouse gas/climate change, exploit the hell out of the shippers-move-stuff-long-distances-by-rail loophole. For what it's worth, local grocers were bitching and wailing about people using railroad express services to ship groceries and avoid paying the local market's markup.



That's much better -- original research! The numbers in the chart give both energy cost and CO2 emissions -- and while rail is worse than ocean shipping, the difference between the two compared to everything else just vanishes. It looks like the CO2 is a 10x between truck and rail, and the energy is a 9x between truck and rail.


You know, if you're willing to let someone truck it 250 miles, you should probably be perfectly happy drinking orange juice on the East Coast. There's a juice train from Florida to Jersey City, so if you figure 1200 rail miles = 120 truck miles and you're using the 250 mile radius that NYC locavores use, anyone within 130 miles of NYC should be able to drink Tropicana orange juice guiltlessly (there's another train to Cincinnati; I'll leave that to Midwesterners to calculate).

Still working on the coffee, thing, tho. [ETA: Someone want to tackle this as a container shipping problem? Maybe for Kona coffee, so we can be all Buy American? The obvious alternative would be to find some fair trade organic mexican coffee that might plausibly be traveling on Kansas City Southern of Mexico and cross your fingers and hope for the best.]

ETA Just a bit more: Why yes, I _did_ specifically mean Tropicana.

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