Week of 10/1/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What is the best eco-friendly vehicle choice for those of us who need a pickup or SUV? We are about to replace two older trucks with one that is more fuel-efficient.

—Barbara Roemer, via e-mail

Fuel efficiency has not typically been the calling card of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). Small hybrid gasoline-electrics are all the rage now among commuters looking to save money at the pump, but similar technology has been slower to gain traction in the "light truck" category. Carmakers have made strides in recent years, though, to meet growing demand for vehicles of all kinds that will sip and not gulp.

Currently, General Motors is the only carmaker offering hybrid pickups. Hybrid versions of its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 4x4s have been available since 2005, and get about 18 miles per gallon (mpg)/city and 21/highway. The non-hybrid versions get 15/19 mpg, but cost $1,500 less. GM claims that those paying the hybrid premium will get back that extra investment in fuel savings over three to five years.

Toyota reportedly has plans for hybridizing its full-size pickup line, too. The company recently unveiled its FTX concept truck, a large 4×4 hybrid pickup, hinting that technology developed for the project will likely end up in its current full-size Tundra pickup. But no such models have hit showrooms yet, and Toyota remains mum about a release date. Meanwhile, industry analysts have been picking up chatter about a hybrid version of Honda's popular Ridgeline pickup, but the company has yet to publicly announce plans.

Regarding fuel-efficient SUVs, consumers have a few more choices. Ford currently leads the charge with its Escape Hybrid model, a smaller SUV that gets 36/31 mpg. Ford makes similar SUV hybrids under its Mercury and Mazda brands. Meanwhile, Toyota's mid-sized Highlander Hybrid SUV clocks in at 32/27 mpg, while the similar Lexus RX 400 Hybrid gets 33/28 mpg. All these vehicles post significantly better fuel efficiency ratings than their non-hybrid counterparts, but also cost more up front.

If you're looking to purchase a new hybrid-electric car or truck in the U.S. before the end of 2007 you may qualify for a healthy tax credit, depending on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a 2007 4WD Chevrolet Silverado or GMC Sierra hybrid pickup would garner a tax credit worth $650 (2WD versions qualify for a $250 credit), and the new 2WD Ford Escape Hybrid and Toyota's Highlander Hybrid each qualify for a whopping $2,600 credit. Buyers of the 2007 Lexus RX 400h can count on getting $2,200 back. The credits are limited to the first 60,000 sold, though, so if you're looking to jump on the hybrid bandwagon you should run, not walk, to the nearest showroom.

Replacing an older truck with a newer model—especially a hybrid—will almost always guarantee better fuel economy, but it might not be the most environmentally sensitive way to go, all things considered. Some experts would argue for keeping the old truck, and fixing and tuning it up, thus preventing another new vehicle from hitting the roads while an old one clogs up the junkyard. Repairing an old vehicle is usually cheaper than buying a new one, though it is difficult to quantify the cost of ongoing maintenance hassles.

CONTACTS: IRS Hybrid Vehicle Tax Credits, www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=157632,00.html; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Fuel Economy Information, www.epa.gov/fueleconomy/.


Dear EarthTalk:Why do environmentalists advocate that people "eat locally?" I don't understand the connection between patronizing local food producers and environmental quality.

—Timothy Douglas, Burlington, VT

In our modern age of food preservatives and additives, genetically altered crops and E. coli outbreaks, as with the recent spinach debacle, people are increasingly concerned about the quality and cleanliness of the foods they eat. Given the impossibility of identifying the pesticides used and the route taken to grow and transport, say, a banana from Central America to our local supermarket, foods grown locally make a lot of sense for those who want more control over what they put into their bodies.

John Ikerd, a retired agricultural economics professor who writes about the growing "eat local" movement, says that farmers who sell direct to local consumers need not give priority to packing, shipping and shelf life issues and can instead "select, grow and harvest crops to ensure peak qualities of freshness, nutrition and taste." Eating local also means eating seasonally, he adds, a practice much in tune with Mother Nature.

"Local food is often safer, too," says the Center for a New American Dream (CNAD). "Even when it's not organic, small farms tend to be less aggressive than large factory farms about dousing their wares with chemicals." Small farms are also more likely to grow more variety, too, says CNAD, protecting biodiversity and preserving a wider agricultural gene pool, an important factor in long-term food security.

Eating locally grown food even helps in the fight against global warming. Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture reports that the average fresh food item on our dinner table travels 1,500 miles to get there. Buying locally-produced food eliminates the need for all that fuel-guzzling transportation.

Another benefit of eating locally is helping the local economy. Farmers on average receive only 20 cents of each food dollar spent, says Ikerd, the rest going for transportation, processing, packaging, refrigeration and marketing. Farmers who sell food to local customers "receive the full retail value, a dollar for each food dollar spent," he says. Additionally, eating locally encourages the use of local farmland for farming, thus keeping development in check while preserving open space.

Portland, Oregon's EcoTrust has launched a campaign, the Eat Local Challenge, to encourage people to eat locally for a week so they can see—-and taste—the benefits. The organization provides an "Eat Local Scorecard" to those willing to try. Participants must commit to spending 10 percent of their grocery budget on local foods grown within a 100-mile radius of home. In addition they are asked to try one new fruit or vegetable each day, and to freeze or otherwise preserve some food to enjoy later in the year.

EcoTrust also provides consumers with tips on how to eat locally more often. Shopping regularly at local farmers" markets or farmstands tops the list. Also, locally owned grocery and natural foods stores and coops are much more likely than supermarkets to stock local foods. The Local Harvest website provides a comprehensive national directory of farmers" markets, farm stands and other locally grown food sources.

CONTACTS: Center for a New American Dream, www.newdream.org/consumer/farmersmarkets.php; EcoTrust Eat Local Challenge, www.eatlocal.net; Local Harvest, www.localharvest.org.