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It started as a wild fruit in the Andes of western South America, then was a farmed fruit among the Aztecs of Central America. There it fell into the hands and mouths of Spanish conquistadors, priests, and functionaries, who introduced it to the Philippines, the Caribbean, and Europe. Colonists brought it back across the Atlantic to North America, where eventually food packers found a way to squeeze billions of them into narrow-necked bottles of ketchup that lurk in seven out of nine refrigerators.

The tomato—botanically a fruit but legally a vegetable after an 1893 U.S. Supreme Court decision—is ubiquitous and hugely popular, the second most common fresh vegetable after lettuce. It is also infamous, reduced over the years from a juicy grenade of flavor to the mealy, bland, thick-skinned hardball that some shoppers now think of as the norm.

“People have gotten used to a hard tomato,” says farmer Richard Ness, who grows a dozen varieties of old-line heirloom tomatoes at his farm in Ellensburg, Washington, which he sells at farmers market in Seattle. “If they come by a soft one, they think it’s ‘spoiled.’”

Today’s supermarket-issue tomato is a road warrior, picked apple-hard and “mature green,” then ethylene gassed to a pale-red illusion of ripeness. It makes up the bulk of the fresh tomato crop, tolerating rough handling, long bouts of storage and display, and lots of travel. Tomatoes can grow in all fifty states, but just two— California and Florida—account for two-thirds of the fresh tomatoes grown in the country.

Along with the rest of our nation’s fresh vegetables, they travel 1,500 to 2,500 miles to market, according to several studies. As recently as the 1950s, the fruits and vegetables eaten in most major cities were grown on nearby farms, a likely reason New Jersey, lying between the cities of New York and Philadelphia, came to be called “the Garden State.” But refrigerated transport, interstates, and advances in storage quickly took the show on the road.

By 1996, more than 90 percent of fresh produce was moving by truck, according to research by David and Marcia Pimentel, authors of Food, Energy, and Society. And the distance food travels is only growing longer as global trade and cheap oil make it easier to send produce around the planet. Almost 900 billion tons of food were shipped worldwide in 2002, a fourfold increase from 1961. More than one-fourth of Americans’ fresh fruits were imported in 2001, more than double the amount in 1985. Imports also account for a third of America’s fruit juices, more than half its asparagus—and more than a third of its tomatoes.

So even in the peak of summer, when tomatoes are ripening in gardens around the country, American supermarkets will sell mass-produced hothouse tomatoes from Canada and Roma tomatoes from Mexico. The result: tens of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions, often when nearby food choices can be grown, processed, and shipped with much less energy. As things are, the hundreds of gallons of oil used to feed each American citizen every year produce more than a ton of carbon dioxide.

It used to be that agriculture was largely solar powered: crops grew in the sun, and humans and animals, powered by those very crops, harvested them. Now agriculture is in many ways a study in the flow of fossil fuels. Gas, diesel, and coal are factors in almost every step of production, creating inorganic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, pumping water for irrigation, driving complex machinery and powerful tractors. By the Pimentels’ account, the U.S. food system uses nearly one-fifth of the nation’s energy supply.

More than most other industries, agriculture arouses our sense that things are askew in our environment. Perhaps it is because we expect so much from farms. They are a last refuge for the eye in a world of highways, strip malls, and cul-de-sacs, and they evoke nostalgia about country living and traditional values, like physical labor and working in sync with the seasons. So it’s disappointing to find that agriculture is the leading source of water pollution and the biggest water consumer in North America, as well as the main force behind soil erosion and the loss of wetlands and grasslands.

But as Americans learn more about agriculture’s impact, more and more consumers are stepping outside of the mainstream food system with choices aimed at healthier bodies, cleaner landscapes, and a smaller carbon footprint. They’re seeking out farmers’ markets, buying food directly from local farmers with more sustainable practices, and sometimes raising food in their home gardens. They’re eating more organic food. Or they’re cutting back on burgers and other meat in favor of equally tasty meatless options—substituting the beefsteak (tomato) for beef and steak.

A diet that’s relatively low in animal protein is better for the environment. Fruits and vegetables require two calories of energy inputs to produce one calorie of output. Animal proteins, on the other hand, take anywhere from twenty to eighty calories of energy to produce one calorie. In the United States, people eat more meat and poultry (two hundred pounds a year on average) than in any other nation, consuming vast amounts of energy in the process. Livestock production consumes almost half the energy used in American agriculture; in Canada, farm animals eat over three times more grain than humans do. About seven pounds of grain are needed to produce a pound of boneless, trimmed pork; about three pounds for each pound of chicken; and, depending on how much time cattle spend grazing before entering a feedlot, about five pounds for a pound of beef.

In almost every category of concern associated with agriculture—water and energy consumption, erosion, overgrazing, pollution, even methane emissions—grains and vegetables are hands-down winners over livestock. A pound of beef produced in the United States sends about a half-pound of methane into the atmosphere— the greenhouse equivalent of burning half a gallon of gasoline. That’s six times more than what a pound of American-grown rice generates. Globally, livestock and manure produce about three times more methane than rice paddies.

Jamais Cascio, futurist and co-founder of the environmental blogWorldChanging.com, has calculated the carbon footprint of the cheeseburger and concluded that “the greenhouse gas emissions arising every year from the production and consumption of cheeseburgers are roughly the amount emitted by 6.5 million to 19.6 million SUVs.” To put that in perspective, consider that that there are about 16 million SUVs on the road in the United States.

The problems arising from animal agriculture are vexing enough with just one in four people worldwide eating a meat-centered diet. There’s no way the world can support 6 billion—much less a future population of 8 to 12 billion—heavy meat eaters. For everyone in the world today to eat an American-style diet, farmers would have to grow nearly three times as much grain as they do now. Steer number 534, an Angus calf that author Michael Pollan followed from pasture to feedlot, indirectly consumed nearly a barrel of oil (that’s forty-two gallons) to reach slaughter weight.

The staggering waste of crops required by the North American diet does not mean that world hunger is caused by people eating cheeseburgers. Most of the world’s 840 million malnourished people simply lack the money and land to buy or grow enough food. Eating lower on the food chain won’t do much to solve the problem of global hunger; only a frontal attack on the root causes of poverty can do that.

Yet as the number of mouths to feed keeps growing, land now used to grow feed crops could be needed to fight hunger in the future. Asian-style diets make the most of increasingly scarce cropland: it takes about an acre of pasture and cropland to support the average Chinese person’s diet, while it takes about four acres, which would cover nearly four football fields, to support the average American.

Eating organic can also go a long way to reduce the environmental impact of your menu. Fossil fuel–based synthetic fertilizers and pesticides account for more than one-third of the energy used on U.S. farms. Agronomists comparing organic and conventional farming have also found that organic farms leave soils healthier. But organic food can fall short when food miles start entering the equation. A recent study by student researchers at the University of Alberta compared organic and conventionally grown produce and found that many organic products traveled farther to reach Edmonton stores, with mangoes coming from as far away as Peru. Transporting organic produce into a city the size of Edmonton generated as much if not more carbon dioxide than conventional produce, they said.

One might make a case that the benefits of organic food outweigh such drawbacks; for example, organic food grown with on-site manure (one of the most energy-efficient ways of farming organically) will use one third less fossil fuel on the farm than does conventionally grown food. But some foods don’t add up so well. Bottled water is a notorious carbon culprit. Every day, Americans go through 40 million bottles of water. The bottles are usually made from petroleum-based plastic, and the vaunted water often comes from a regular old public drinking supply. The bottles must be shipped, often over large distances.

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March 7, 2006