So here is a graphic that has shown up on several blogs:
It comes from a study by a group of students at The California College of the Arts and depicts just how far the ingredients of a taco travel.The taco in question comes from a truck in San Francisco’s Mission District. Here is how Good (Your Taco, Deconstructed, Mar 2) summarized their findings:
By thoroughly understanding what it takes to make a taco, the class hoped to become “better able to propose and design a speculative model of a holistic and sustainable urban future.” The final product is a surprisingly useful microcosm of the industrial food system and its “richly complex network of systems, flows, and ecologies.” According to the class findings, within a single taco, the ingredients had traveled a total of 64,000 miles, or just over two and a half times the circumference of the earth. …
The students were surprised to find that several ingredients were produced locally, such as the salt, which had come from just south of San Francisco. The cheese, which appeared at Restaurant Depot as an in-house brand called Supremo Italiano, was actually from a company with 10 regional plants around the West that source ingredients and sell locally, despite their larger national brand. Other ingredients had come from much further away. The various spices in the Adobo seasoning, for instance, had traveled a combined 15,000 miles. The avocados had traveled from Chile, home of the world’s largest avocado grower (a company that was said to produce 300 million fruit per year). The rice was imported from Thailand, despite an abundance of California-grown rice, and was packaged under an array of brand names. “The taco truck owner may have bought the bag with the Sombrero on it, while another shopper at Restaurant Depot might have bought the exact same rice with a Buddha on the package,” said Bela.
From a sustainability standpoint, Fast Company’s story on the report (The Anatomy of a Taco) notes that miles traveled don’t tell the whole story.
Production contributes 45% of a meal’s carbon emissions, compared to a 6% contribution from transportation–so a producer that grows a piece of fruit with a less carbon-intensive production process 5,000 miles away is preferable to an inefficient local grower. And the majority of transportation emissions come from customer trips to the grocery store, so it’s more efficient to walk down the street to the taco truck than to constantly drive to get local ingredients from the grocery store across town.
What this ignores, it seems, is whether the definition of what is necessary for a taco should change with the seasons. Schlepping tomatoes and avocados in the winter is only relevant because we insist on having tomatoes and avocados in our tacos in February. The supply chain could be simpler and more energy efficient if consumers were willing to accept what was available given the time of year. I suspect that seller’s are leery of testing the idea. Why pick one taco seller over another? Because you generally prefer its products but that goes out the window when your offerings are subject to the whims of local agriculture.
A related point: Local may mean more expensive. One of the hottest restaurants in Chicago right now is Xoco, celebrity chef Rick Bayless. To PBS viewers, Bayless is the guy who hosts “Mexico – One Plate at a Time;” to ESPN viewers, he is Skip Bayless’s brother. In any event, Xoco serves Mexican “street” food, mainly tortas, and generally has a line out the door. A sandwich goes for $12. Chicago magazine ran an interesting feature comparing the ingredients of one of Xoco’s offerings with the ingredients of a sandwich from Cemitas Puebla, a family run restaurant in the Humboldt Park neighborhood (Comparing Xoco’s and Cemita Puebla’s Pork Sandwiches, Feb 2010). Here is what they say about Bayless’s pork:
Landrace-Duroc suckling pigs from Maple Creek Farm in Waukesha, Wisconsin, fed sustainably farmed soy and corn. Semi-confined but allowed to roam regularly, the pigs are butchered at Frontera Grill, the meat rubbed in achiote and other spices, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow-cooked seven hours in a wood-fired oven. “We pay several dollars more per pound [than for factory pork],” says Shaw Lash, Xoco’s sous-chef.
Here is what the owner of Cemita Puebla says about his meat:
Butchered and portioned USDA-inspected pork loin chops from Carniceria Jimenez in West Humboldt Park. “I know my stuff isn’t organic,” says Anteliz. “Carniceria gets the meat from different packing plants in Chicago, and they hand cut it for me every day. The people who eat here know good meat.”
At the end of the day, Cemita Puebla charges half the price of Xoco and has plenty of satisfied customers. Like the Mission District taco truck, it serves a market that cannot afford $12 sandwiches. In other words, local and organic is still generally a luxury in the US which is fine if you think that not everyone needs to have suckling pigs for lunch. However, if the 64,000 mile taco offends your sensibilities, there is no easy solution. I suspect that agriculture in greater Chicago can support only so many restaurants like Xoco, and it is going to be hard to make the long-distance taco go away.