The gigantic eighteen-wheeler belching black smoke and airplane contrails in a clear blue sky are hallmarks of the long-distance shipping industry. A lot of what they carry is food. Like all of the other stuff we move around the planet, food often travels vast distances. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a proponent of environmental sustainability, I’m happy to eat locally-sourced food not just because it’s fresh, but because I think it causes less pollution.

If you search for the answer to the question, ‘How much do food miles matter when it comes to carbon emissions?’ the response from many concerned researchers is, ‘Not as much as you might think.‘

This is a fine-grained issue that (like piles of produce at the supermarket) has been picked over extensively. Harvard’s Gary Adamkiewicz says, “The short answer is that buying local food is a good principle, but not a universal rule.” He cites the Environmental Working Group’s research on pollution caused by production compared to ‘post-farmgate pollution’, which includes pollution from transportation. It’s about what you eat. In almost all cases, pollution from production dwarfs post-farmgate pollution.

But in some cases, shipping does matter. Adamkiewicz cites the Journal of Wine Research, which found that, in America, wine from France had a smaller carbon footprint than California’s Napa Valley wine. According to Adamkiewicz, “A French wine can have a smaller carbon footprint than wine from Napa Valley since the ocean transport has a smaller footprint than a cross-country trip by diesel truck.” Effectively, it’s less impactful, in terms of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, to ship French wine across the ocean to New York, than to truck Napa Valley wine there. When it comes to a product such as wine, which has a minimal production footprint, transportation is the main generator of greenhouse gas emissions.

This issue can spark vehemence. In an article for New Scientist, Michael Le Page goes so far as to say, “Stop buying organic food if you want to save the planet”. He relies mainly on a study from Julius McGee at the University of Oregon, Eugene, which associates the rise in organic production with an overall rise in agricultural GHG emissions. McGee’s study basically says there are some bad actors in the certified organic business whose production emissions offset the gains made by more conscientious farms.

This study has seen a serious critique from a group of European researchers who contend McGee ignores a great deal of research to the contrary. According to the critique, a number of studies “report lower emissions and higher soil carbon sequestration for organic systems and it should then be discussed how this may relate to the results of McGee.” McGee also fails to account for livestock emissions, which play a huge role.

Additionally, the Soil Association’s Tom Macmillan says New Scientist’s Le Page is looking at it the wrong way. According to Macmillan, “The big win comes from us eating a different mix of foods, particularly less but better meat. How can you find that better meat, fed mainly on grass and not on crops from deforested land? Look for an organic label.” In terms of organic farm emissions, MacMillan agrees with the researchers who provided the critique of McGee’s study.

But MacMillan also points out that estimates on organic and non-organic agriculture and land use alone account for all the food-related emissions the planet can afford by 2050. “That would mean every other activity, from generating energy to transport and house-building, could emit no net GHGs.”

Sustainability is one of the top three challenges facing the food industry, because arguably we’ll need to increase global food production 70% by 2050, at which point the Earth will house an estimated 9 billion people. The amount of food we waste plays a huge part in the need to increase yields. Add increasing shipping emissions to increasing production emissions, and we’re over the limit.

In the US alone, diesel fuel accounts for about 25% of total energy consumed within the food system. To cut down on this, all farms will have to adapt to energy-efficient transportation methods, such as electric or hydrogen fuel cell trucks.

The road to energy-efficient food transportation in the US

Navigant, a research and consulting firm focused on global clean technology markets, estimates that sales of electric trucks will grow from 31,000 in 2016 to 332,000 in 2026. In part, this growth will be sparked by new regulations.

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) finalised new federal fuel economy regulations for commercial trucks. Small and big farms will both have to work with a transport structure under increasing pressure to go green. Phase One requires semi-trucks, pickup trucks and every kind of bus and work truck to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. Phase Two regulations on class 7 and 8 semis will get even steeper in 2021. According to the EPA’s announcement, by the year 2027 these trucks will have to cut emissions by an additional 24%.

Electric trucks typically cost a lot to run because the batteries are too heavy and big, it takes a long time to recharge them and their range is low. As it stands, a long-haul electric semi-truck that runs on a lithium-ion battery doesn’t exist yet. There’s the 40 tonne BMW YT202-EV, which creates zero emissions and saves 12 tons of CO2 compared to a standard diesel (according to BMW) – but it only goes 62 miles between charges. So far, BMW has only tested it on the streets of Munich.

Farms that ship locally, in an urban ‘stop-and-start’ environment, can currently look into a Wrightspeed electric powertrain for their existing trucks or they can purchase a Wrightspeed hybrid truck. Ian Wright, the founder of Wrightspeed, is a former partner of Elon Musk at Tesla. His two-stage gas turbine engine can run on diesel, CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) – typically produced from landfill and food waste – LNG (Liquified Natural Gas), methane, biodiesel, kerosene, propane, heating oil, or any other combustible fuel (vegetable oil, anyone?). The powertrain uses plug-in lithium-ion phosphate battery power for about 30 miles. During that stretch, regenerative braking power also feeds up to 730 kw of power to the battery. Then a microturbine generator kicks in and allows for unlimited range by recharging the battery completely. When an Isuzu delivery truck was retrofitted with one, it went from averaging 12 mpg to 44 mpg. The cost to retrofit a truck with a Wrightspeed powertrain is about $200,000 – so its commercial viability for a farm on a tight budget is debatable.

America’s new president Donald Trump wants to cut regulations on coal production in order to create jobs. He also wants to end restrictions on “clean coal”. There’s no such thing as clean coal. If coal power feeds electric plug-in trucks, fleets could meet emissions regulations using trucks that get their power from a dirty source, negating any real move towards greener transportation for the food industry.

America’s energy policy is enacted by the Department of Energy (DOE), which “oversees 17 national labs where engineers and scientists work to develop new sources of clean energy and address the global climate crisis.” But the DOE is a cabinet-level department, and Trump is a climate change sceptic who wants to maintain dependence on fossil fuels.

Electric trucks that rely on dirty power would not be a zero-emissions solution. There is an alternative, but it’s a long-shot.

The Nikola One is a zero-emissions semi-truck. It employs hydrogen fuel cells to power the engine. It goes 1,200 miles on a single charge. The fuel cells are lighter than batteries and diesel engines, and drivers can fill them up within minutes. However, to make any widespread and significant adoption of the Nikola One feasible, Nikola would need to build an entire infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations across North America – no small task. “Much of the freight industry in the US is perfectly satisfied with the existing diesel infrastructure. The country’s sprawling geography complicates the planning process,” says Trucks.com author Tiffany Hsu. She points out that Nikola’s plan would actually have more traction in Europe, because Europe is “much more compact and open-minded about alternative fuels”. Still, Nikola plans to begin work on the infrastructure in 2018, and wants to offer lease customers unlimited free fuel. If that happens, an organic farm could ostensibly harness the rising interest in organic food to pay the lease, without having to pay for hydrogen.

A slow build

How long it will take the food shipping industry to achieve zero emissions is uncertain, but it needs to happen sooner than later. If the source of electricity for electric semis is dirty, it defeats the purpose. If Nikola is able to achieve its goal of bringing zero-emission hydrogen fuel to the mainstream, it would sidestep the dirty electricity problem. However, farmers and fleet operators will have to be convinced they’ll see a return on the $375,000 Nikola One investment.

Over time, energy-efficient vehicles pay for themselves because owners save money on fuel. Government would need to provide more incentives and institute more stringent regulations to speed up adoption of zero-emissions trucks. Up-front cost may defeat widespread adoption of these trucks in the short-term, but in the long-run, as competition increases and prices go down with the advent of new technology, zero-emissions food shipments should become standard.

Photograph: Jefzila

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