Food Miles Really Matter for Canned Foods

Updated August 2014

Transporting items of mostly water for long distances doesn’t make eco-sense. 
Regardless of whether you like to cook or not, you’ve got to love the great selection of items available at your local grocery store these days.  Looking into our pantry recently I found canned tuna, pineapple and coconut milk from Thailand, red pepper spread from Bulgaria, olives from Greece, tomato sauce from Italy and soup and vegetables from the USA.  Have you ever wondered what the environmental costs are to ship these fairly heavy items all around the globe?  I did a little research on the subject of Food Miles and found some surprising and eye-opening facts.

A study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University showed that today your average food is transported about 1500 miles before it reaches the table.

Here are a few key points from the study:
“In the past 30 years there has been a significant global increase in fossil fuel use.  One reason for the rise in U.S. fossil fuel use is the increased use of trucks to transport goods.”

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“The burning of these fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases known as greenhouse gases that absorb heat and may contribute to an increase in global warming.”

“The largest source of CO2 and overall greenhouse gas emissions in the United States was fossil fuel combustion, accounting for 80 percent of global warming potential (GWP) weighted emissions in the 1990s.”

Many of these trucked goods are food and beverage products with very high water content, which equates to weight.  Shipping heavier products means more fuel consumed, which means more air pollution.  This all seems to make sense, but how much pollution actually occurs?

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I decided to calculate the emissions from transportation for the can of chicken soup, a family favorite, to understand what the impact really is. You can review the details by clicking here. With a little searching online I found that the soup is made in Southern New Jersey.
Online maps calculated the shipping distance to Northern California via road as nearly 3,000 miles. We buy this soup by the case from the local warehouse club and easily go through a can per person each week. For our family of four, that equates to over 200 cans per year. At 1.4 pounds per can, we are shipping 280 pounds of mostly water from coast to coast. Here we sit less than 50 miles from California’s Central and Salinas Valleys, two of the world’s best farming areas, yet we’re eating soup that was made nearly 3000 miles away.

The bottom line is that our consumption of 200 cans of soup per year generates about 275 pounds of CO2 emissions.  The graphic on the right puts the environmental impact into perspective.

We never knew that the soup was being shipped across the country.  If you look at the label on the can, it will tell you the company and headquarters location for that company.  This is NOT where the canning plant is located, so it can be misleading.  In this case the headquarters is in Minnesota while the canning plant is in New Jersey.  Researching further I found that canned goods come from all over the country and typically from farming areas.  The problem is that most of the population is located far from the canning plants, which means transporting.

So what are the alternatives?
You can try to research where the canned goods come from, but as outlined above, this isn’t easy.  The best solution is making the meals in your kitchen.  Try to avoid heavy canned ingredients and use fresh or frozen instead, hopefully locally grown.  Use dry ingredients when you can.  These are much lighter to transport than their canned counterparts.  Keep the canned goods for emergencies.

Now that we understand the environmental impact of transporting canned foods and discovering that almost all food and beverage cans have toxic BPA linings, we’ve decided to get serious about cooking soups, stews and chili’s at home rather than using canned foods.

A homemade meal is better for the environment and your family’s health.  The biggest issue is time!  We all have that vision of a delicious pot of soup, filled with fresh ingredients, simmering on the stove all day long.  Well, who has time for that?  There is a simple solutions for this also; it’s called the Slow Cooker, although most of us know it by the brand name Crock-Pot®.  Slow Cookers have come along way in the last few years with programmable timers, automatic shut-off and a keep warm mode.  It’s very easy to assemble the ingredients the night before and turn on the slow cooker when you go to work.  The delicious meal is ready when you get home that day.

Through careful selection of the ingredients you can control a lot more than just transportation pollution.  The use of organic items, elimination of preservatives, reduction of salt and elimination of the BPA lined containers result in much healthier meals for both your family and the environment.  See Simple Ecology Recipes for eco-friendly, healthy and great tasting ideas.

Ron Czinski