Food Miles: Fun Facts Or Frivolous Falsities?

food miles

One of the things that I’m attempting to do as part of my support of Climate Week is to eat a diet that is low carbon and thus more sustainable in the long run. I have had to ask myself what makes up a low carbon meal and while things such as eating less red meat and dairy play a big role, the distance that my food has travelled and the modes of transport used also has some impact on the individual carbon footprints of foodstuffs.

In this post I’m going to try and give a concise but balanced view of food miles and how useful they can be as a tool towards a low carbon diet. Food miles are a topic that I will inevitably touch on in future posts so I’m going to try and remain focused on their pros and cons rather than drifting off to similar topics.

What Are Food Miles?

At their most basic, ‘food miles’ refer to how far a product has travelled from where it was grown or produced to the point of consumption. At this level, it can act as a moderate indicator of how much of an environmental impact a foodstuff has.

Complications arise when you consider foodstuffs that are made from more than one ingredient as you then have to combine the food miles of each component into one figure. It is not impossible to achieve this but it certainly adds to any error margin.

What Are The Problems With Food Miles?

One of the main issues with food miles as far as I can see is the varying degrees of environmental damage that different modes of transport do to the environment. The four main methods of freight; sea, air, road and rail, produce different amounts of CO2 equivalent emissions per tonne transported.

Therefore, assuming a banana is bad because it has travelled thousands of miles is a short-sighted approach; because they keep so well without the need for refrigeration, bananas can be transported by sea which has around 2% of the carbon footprint of the equivalent air freight.

Another important factor to consider when calculating food miles, and one which can be overlooked, is the distance travelled by the consumer in purchasing the food. For instance, a locally reared beef roasting joint may sound like it has few food miles but if a consumer has to travel 10 miles by car to get it from a farm shop, it becomes a whole different matter. This is because individual journeys by car to buy small amounts of food generate a lot more greenhouse gas emissions per tonne per mile than a large freight lorry or even a train.

Finally, while food miles can help us decide between products if we are trying to shop sustainably, it turns out that only 12% of the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to food are down to transportation. Much of the environmental impact is due to production and processing which can sometimes leave us in the weird scenario of it being greener to import something from abroad than to produce it in the UK. Tomatoes grown out of season are a great example because the heating of greenhouses in the UK causes a lot more CO2 equivalent emissions than growing them naturally in sunny Spain before shipping them to shops here.

Similarly, buying New Zealand lamb may sound pretty bad for the environment but the New York Times reported in 2007 that this is four times more energy-efficient than raising the sheep in the UK on poorer pastures where grain has to be provided for additional nutrition.

When To Consider & When To Ignore

My analysis so far seems to point to many cases where food miles are not generally a good measure of “greenness” but there are a few rules of thumb to follow that will help you avoid having too big of an impact environmentally speaking.

  1. Eat vegetables only when they are in season – supermarkets have to label which country a food has come from which makes it easy for us consumers to see how far it has travelled. If a veg needs to be eaten soon after it is harvested then the likelihood is that it was flown to the UK. So stop eating things like asparagus out of season as it probably has a huge weight-to-CO2 footprint.
  2. Choose hardy fruits and veg – certain fruits and vegetables, like the aforementioned banana, can survive the long journey by boat unspoilt because of a natural protective skin so look out for these if you are trying to eat low carbon.
  3. Choose tinned over fresh – food can last a long time in a tin and still be safe and delicious and while it’s not always the same as fresh in terms of what you can do with it, eating tinned fish, meat and vegetables not only means transportation can be done by sea, it also reduces the chance of food waste due to spoilage.
  4. If you have to drive specifically for one or two items then you are pushing the carbon footprint of those foods up quite significantly. The meat being sold in farm shops could well be the same meat being sold in your local butcher so ask him or her where the meat is sourced from and avoid driving too far for your food shopping.

The Underlying Trend

As consumers demand greater variety in food and year-round access to fruits and vegetables, the trend is for even more transportation of food in the future. This is not only the case in the UK but all around the world and especially in countries where large swathes of the population are moving away from poverty and into the relatively well-off working classes.

Food miles and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with them are likely to become a more prominent point of discussion at the international level and I think attention will turn to being as efficient as possible all throughout the supply chain while also coming up with new storage solutions so that food does not spoil so quickly and thus can be shipped not flown.

Do you ever think about where your food has come from? Have I opened your eyes to the possibility that not all local produce is as green as you think it is? Leave a comment to let me know your thoughts.

Steve (152 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.


2 Responses to “Food Miles: Fun Facts Or Frivolous Falsities?”

  1. Jasmyn Schmidt
    November 5, 2013 at 3:03 PM

    Thank you so much for your facts, I am a Farm to School Nutrition Educator in Eagle River, Wi USA and was able to use some of your info in teaching a lesson on local foods.

    • November 6, 2013 at 11:56 AM

      That’s great Jasmyn, glad I could give you a little inspiration for your lesson.

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