Foreign Food, Hidden Costs

March 1st, 2008

Reconsidering the global food market as oil prices rise

By Jenna Scatena

When I first got my driver’s license in 2001 gas was 99 cents per gallon. Now, due to the dwindling supply of oil, the national average is $3.22 per gallon. This dramatic increase is causing people to reevaluate their driving habits, to carpool more often and travel less. But the price we pay at the pump is not the only consequence of our planet’s dwindling liquid gold; another is the spike in the cost (both monetary and environmental) of anything we import–including food.

According to Lael Gerhart, a member of the Buy Local Food Campaign at Cornell’s Cooperative Extension program, in the U.S., each ingredient in our food travels an average distance of 1,500 miles to reach our plate. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in a report published in late 2007, freight costs have doubled since 2006, and shipping costs for bulk commodities increased 80 percent in 2007 alone. The report stressed that the increase does not imply more food being imported but reflects the dramatically increasing price of oil.

In hopes of increasing consumer awareness of the impact of how much fuel it takes to transport food, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London, coined the term “food miles.” Narrowly, food miles are the distance that food travels from field to plate, but in a broader sense the term is meant to “highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production,” Lang told the BBC.
Many local establishments are aware of the insidious problem of food importation; local restaurants such as Just a Taste and Moosewood (along with many others) use local produce whenever possible. Cornell University has a renowned Cooperative Extension program, which does research, education and outreach to the community about local sustainability issues. Ithaca College has numerous on-campus organizations devoted to sustainability, and the dining services offer some local produce.

Cornell has taken particularly ambitious steps to form relationships with local farms. The dining services at Cornell have a contract with Ithaca Produce stating that at least 20 percent of their annual produce must be locally grown produce purchased through them (though in 2007 they purchased 33 percent of their produce locally). Their policy also makes it a priority to purchase locally or regionally grown food as long as it is economically feasible.

At IC, however, where corporate giant Sodexho manages the dining services, a primarily local menu is more difficult to implement. Sodexho, which operates food services on college campuses, government facilities and retirement homes in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, imports most of its food from Mexico and Latin America.

Sodexho’s practice of importing food from outside New York State and even outside of the United States probably more accurately reflects the behavior of the majority of the nation at this point in time. However, some experts are saying that system is doomed to collapse with the demise of cheap oil. As Alicia Swords, assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College puts it, “If oil is on the way out, that means the food system we have is entirely unsustainable.”

Food in the U.S. travels 25 percent farther now than it did only two decades ago. The FAO warns of an “unforeseen and unprecedented” shift in the global food system and decreased access to food due to lack of affordable transportation. A dis-integration of the world food market is already in effect as poorer countries are now opting to produce more food closer to them. The spike in import costs has also fueled protests in Mexico and Italy after a nearly 60 percent increase in the price of imported grains for pasta and tortillas. Some import-heavy countries in Eastern Europe now spend an average of 70 percent of their income on food.

The United States is also feeling the financial effects of importing food. It may be hard to fully grasp the impact of oil prices on the global food market. After all, we can still buy bananas from Columbia at a price that does not entirely reflect the cost it actually took to produce, package, and ship them– it is a delayed effect. As Swords says, “The ability to eat bananas at all in Ithaca is about oil and power.” In short, the cost of America’s food prices does not yet reflect the cost of oil.

Some countries have no choice but to import food to sustain their population. The U.S., however, has the ability to produce more than enough food for our 300 million inhabitants, yet we are importing 15 percent of our food, mainly for economic reasons. For example, some U.S. fisheries export fish to China to be processed due to lower labor costs and then ship it back to the U.S. to be sold in the same location.

America prides itself on its capitalist economy and free market—that is maximizing profits and exchanging goods without governmental restrictions. So if a company wants to haul food thousands of miles across the globe for the sake of a profit, regardless of environmental impact, it may do so. But does that mean that it’s harmless? One problem may lie in the psychological disconnect between Americans and their food. Most of us do not watch our food grow or even know where it comes from—it just appears in front of us at the grocery store.

Other countries are trying new tactics to promote awareness. According to the BBC, the British government recently decided to take action to “reduce the environmental and social costs of food transport in the UK by 20 percent by 2012.” They are also trying to increase consumer awareness by labeling most foods with a food mile stamp so that as people peruse the vegetables, they can decide between a tomato with 50 food miles or a tomato with 500 food miles.

The situation is not irresolvable; America (and the rest of the world) is not doomed. Cornell, for instance, mobilized a “buy local” campaign. The purpose of this campaign is to educate the community about the benefits of buying local and to promote local farmers. Since it began in 2005, it has been rather successful in “increasing farm to restaurant connections, establishing farm to institution connections and providing access to fresh and nutritious food to low-income families.” This model can be applied to institutions throughout the U.S., including IC.

In the U.S., we tend to feel that if we can afford something, we have a right to have it. So if we can afford to ship in exotic spices, fruits, vegetables, meats and grains from any point on the globe, we do. But with the peak of cheap oil now behind us, and an estimated five to 30 years of expensive oil ahead of us, chances are that we are in for a hard slap in the face when we go to Wegmans one day and find that our 79 cent Colombian bananas cost as much as a tank of gas.

Jenna Scatena is a junior writing major. Email her at jscaten1[at]

Whaling Wall Matthew Farrell
Chow Feng Shui Josh Elmer
Stained Glass Ceiling Emily McNeill
Anarchitect Mike Berlin
SaHarrison Desert Harrison Flatau
Metrolollipopolis Jennifer Konerman
Tropic of Scurvy Heather Newberger
Copy Editors Danielle Sherwood
  Jenna Scatena
  Elliott Feedore
Adviser Mary Beth O’Connor
Chief Residents Abby Bertumen
  Kelly Burdick
  Bryan Chambala
  Sam Costello
  Cole Louison
  James Sigman

Buzzsaw Haircut is funded by the Ithaca College Student Government Association, the Park School of Communications and a generous grant from Campus Progress.

Our Press is our press.
Binghamton, NY

Front cover and back cover of print edition by Jake I. Forney.
Section dividers of print edition by Jake I. Forney and Justin Lubliner.