The Real Cost of Our Food Choices

As gas prices rise we are starting to look at how scary it is to be so dependent on gas and where we will be when the oil runs out. We have started to question the wisdom of driving around in gas guzzling SUV’s and are thinking more about alternatively fuelled cars. But what about the food we eat? We don’t often think about the fuel efficiency of our food or the real impact our the food choices we make every day.

Research shows that on average, the food on our plate has traveled 2000 gas fueled miles to reach our table. Within our current system, an average daily intake of 2000 calories of food has actually taken 20,000 calories to grow. This means we are using about as much energy to grow our food as we use to run our homes or fuel our cars. As gas prices continue to increase, so will our food costs. Based on the current oil crisis in the world, it’s fairly easy to see that this kind of consumption and food production is unsustainable.

This is just one of the issues that is of concern with food security. Food security looks at how to provide people with good, nutritious food that is produced in a sustainable way. There are certainly lots of issues regarding people’s access to food. There are also lots of issues surrounding how our food is grown.

As already discussed, we are currently using a huge amounts of non renewable energy to grow our food. And we are increasingly focused on exporting food while our consumption is increasingly focused on importing food. So we are paying to have all this food flying around and yet sometimes this trade doesn’t make any sense. For example, in 2004, Ontario exported $69 million worth of fresh tomatoes while at the same time importing $17 million worth of fresh tomatoes. This shows a system that is nonsensical and totally unsustainable.

How do we build a more sustainable food system? There are a lot of issues to be examined.

– We need to look at how we value food. In our current system, food has become just another commodity. We expect unblemished food at the lowest possible cost, and if it’s cheaper to fly it in from China then we’re happy to buy it. And we want it to be available all year round – strawberries from California in February and tomatoes from hothouses in December. Expensive, gas guzzling food. Do we value our food and its contribution to our health and wellbeing? Canadians are actually spending less on food now than we did 30 years ago, spending only 10% compared to people in France, Germany and Italy who spend approximately 15%. Meanwhile diet related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are growing.

– We need to look at how food is being produced. Current conventional farming practices rely heavily on gas fuelled machinery to farm huge tracts of land to grow monocrops. This often leads to soil degradation and the need for more chemical fertilizers which actually require more energy to produce than it takes to run farm machinery.

– We need to look at what kind of food is being produced – is the food going to feed people at a local level or is it being grown to be exported overseas? Is the food of good nutritional value? Has it been genetically modified?

– And we need to look at who is going to produce our food? Family farms are under severe threat. While food retailers are posting record profits, farmers are recording net losses. While consumers pay more and more for food, the income to farmers hasn’t increased much since the 70’s. Most farmers report having to work second jobs while continuing to work on the farm just to make ends meet. Compounding the problem is the fact that most of the people currently growing food in Canada are growing older and there aren’t many young people replacing them. Land values are so high, and incomes from farms are so low that it is a discouraging future for any would be farmers.

The food security problem is complex and multi faceted and many issues lie with policy makers. Yet as consumers, we wield an incredible power and there are ways we can contribute to a more sustainable food system.

– Buy locally grown food wherever possible. Encourage local retailers to carry local products. When we buy locally grown food, we are supporting our local farmers, their families and our local economy. We are also purchasing more energy efficient food. By buying locally you are connecting with your community and reducing your impact on the earth. If you want to be inspired, read about one BC couples’ decision to only eat food that has been grown within a 100 mile radius of their home at

– If you can buy local food that is organically grown, all the better. Organic farmers practice more sustainable methods of farming, replenishing the soil without polluting the environment. The farms tend to be smaller, more fuel efficient and the food tends to taste better.

– If you are going to eat out, look for restaurants that offer seasonal menus and locally grown food. Not only are you supporting local farmers but the food will be fresher and probably tastier because it was not stored and trucked for miles. Ask your servers about the food on offer. It’s good to get people thinking more about food and where it comes from.

– Build relationships with the people who grow your food by purchasing directly from farmers at farmers markets. This is an opportunity to talk with the growers, ask any questions you might have and get to know more about the food you are eating. Take the kids along, or take them to visit a local farm and reconnect them with where food comes from.

– Start growing some of your own food. Want your kids to eat more fruit and vegetables? Kids love to eat the food they grow. Dig up some of your lawn and put in a vegetable patch. Having the knowledge to grow food is a powerful and valuable skill and having access to your own, locally grown fruits and vegetables is a pleasure and a comfort.

– If growing food on your own seems daunting then join a community garden and support locally grown food. You get to learn from others, share in the harvest and build community.

– Be willing to pay the true cost of food. Stop thinking of food as a commodity but rather as an essential, life giving, nourishing component of your weekly budget. If you are willing to pay the true cost of food then you will probably find someone in your community willing to grow it for you.

Much of this material was inspired by the reported Proceedings of the Third National Food Security Assembly, 2005. To find out more about food security locally check out Nanaimo Foodshare at Also check the following websites,, about food security issues provincially and nationally. To read more about the real cost of food read "Eating Fossil Fuels" by Dale Pfeiffer from and "Gas Guzzling Food" by Thomas Starrs at

Anna Louise Dodds is a registered holistic nutritionist practicing in Nanaimo. She works with diet to address health issues, teaches healthy cooking and baking and even helps people get started on their own vegetable gardens. She can be reached at , (250) 751 9751.