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Eating the Earth – Food Miles

Words by Darius Ghadiali


Recent UoB economics graduate and Bristol Pound Volunteer Darius Ghadiali explores the complexity of food miles. 

If we want to reduce our environmental and social impacts, we need to know the distances, methods and alternatives to our food choices. By using local businesses, it is easier to begin choosing food that doesn’t rely on polluting shipping methods, poor working conditions and unfair pay in the different parts of the supply chain. Bristol Pound encourages people to shop locally. This helps reduce CO2 emissions by shortening supply chains and keeps money in the hands of local Bristol businesses, who in turn are encouraged to spend their £B with other local suppliers. 


Food mileage statistics

A report made by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) looked at some statistics behind food miles, finding that UK bulky goods vehicles contributed most to CO2 emissions out of all listed vehicle types. A significant activity of HGVs is cross-country food transport, which often covers vast distances. Along with our emissions reduction goals, we need to cut back on importing food from far off sources to lower the mileage travelled and therefore the country’s carbon footprint. 


A useful statistic from this study was UK urban food kilometres – measuring car shopping trips, miles of vans and HGVs transporting food. The data shows that there has been an upward increase in urban food miles of 2,813 miles between 1992 and 2010 (with more recent statistics yet to be published). There is more and more food being transported around cities. This could be reduced with efficient food storage and distribution, or from choosing locally sourced produce. 


The conclusion outlined by the DEFRA report is that given that there have been increases in 3 out of 4 food mile indicators (urban food km, HGV food km, air food km, total CO2 emissions), the overall trends for food transport haven’t changed; the evaluation of the report concludes that the increases in HGV food kilometres are in proportion with the country’s higher demand for food because of a shortage of winter food stocks and the high price of grains in 2010. There was also a massive increase in the importing of food from the US due to an increase in demand for pet food ingredients from the US due to the same shortage of winter food. 


The study, while somewhat dated (published in 2012) is still relevant because it gives a clear insight into the different measures of food miles and what they mean.


Reducing food miles – recommendations

The government has laid out six recommendations for sustainable and healthy food choices:


  1. Eating healthy and local produce
  2. Supporting a resilient and sustainable food economy
  3. Sustainable increase in food production
  4. Lowering emissions from food production
  5. Reducing, reusing and reprocessing food waste
  6. Increasing food knowledge and using the best technology when available


The government’s goals are evident in its direction – to help develop a sustainable food economy.  A House of Commons report was written in 2012 detailed the Labour party’s suggestion from 2009 of setting up local food hubs in the UK to support aggregation, distribution, marketing and sale of local produce. 


It’s up to the farmers, supply chain managers, consumers and transport agencies to work toward reducing their mileage and switching to transporting necessary instead of luxury food items. The government can’t force farmers and transporters to do this but can subsidise local food products such that farmers have sound economic reasons to sell locally.


What’s stopping local produce from taking off?

A large block for many people to eat locally is that supermarkets can provide, year-round, fruit and vegetables that we usually wouldn’t be able to eat off-season. We can buy red berries in the winter and eat them without necessarily thinking about where it came from – what matters is that they are available anytime we want. 


Supermarkets know that we have a ‘desire for a permanent dietary summertime’ (as the ETA puts it), and they continue to import vast amounts of berries from countries that can grow them when the UK can’t.


Our taste for on-demand, luxury food items like off-season fruit, exotic desserts and international cuisine has made it the new normal to supply such products across the board, with little taking into account the distance travelled to get to supermarket shelves.


If local food economies could meet the demand for luxury food items, the air pollution, questionable production methods and unknown ingredients would be less and less of a concern.


Being able to buy seasonally-grown food on demand is a modern luxury. It should be weighed up against buying food when it’s in season and ready to be harvested. Not only will buying in-season reduce food miles, but it will support local farming and food growth.


Food miles – too simple a measure?

Is reducing our food miles alone a sure-fire way of shrinking our carbon footprint? 


“No!” – Say, experts, as written in a Guardian article outlining some critiques toward the concept of food mileage. They argue that there needs to be accounting for the production methods themselves. Eating local produce doesn’t always result in the most eco-friendly outcomes; the air miles avoided from not buying food from abroad might offset the number of emissions from tractor use and oil-based fertiliser compounds applied to the ground. More often than not, the net CO2 emitted from buying local overtakes the net emissions from importing. The low-tech methods involved with manual crop ploughing and processing require little to no additional CO2 inputs into the atmosphere – compared to a tractor in the UK fuelled by diesel, it seems that a lot of the farming and food production methods of foreign exporters seem to be more eco-friendly than domestic methods. 


However, with manual work comes relaxed workers rights in countries with weak legal backing for employees. The high daily working hours in these countries may be unheard of in the UK, and there is often no guarantee of fair pay outside of Fairtrade schemes. The Fair Trade Organisation state that in countries where there are unregulated plantations, such as India, Sri Lanka, Malawi and Kenya, women tend to work on average more hours and receive lower pay than men. The Fairtrade indicator aims to bring to the forefront of the tea buyers mind, but lack of space on the packaging means that getting this across to the buyer at the time of buying is complicated.


The government has stated that food miles now is not as illuminating an indicator as initially said to be – they suggest that carbon emissions and fair work indicators be put on labels. One figure that could be included on food labels is the average number of work hours put into the food item, or the average daily emissions levels from the factory or farm that the food was produced. Some crisps and chocolate brands have already put the ‘carbon cost’ sticker on their products, indicating the number of CO2 emitted during the production process. 


However, with increasing marketing appeal of putting a low CO2 sticker on food, there is likely to be a move toward ‘green consumerism’ – where the main attraction of choosing one food over another comes from how eco-friendly the brand or producer is (or seems to be). 


Though this promotes better environmental practice among producers for profit-making reasons, this is not necessarily unethical – if the emissions are being cut to meet the brands’ claims of being green, this will be doing some good.


For this to work, there needs to be good enough reason for the companies to comply with their standards, or if not, face substantial legal consequences for misleading the public.


Food for thought

Food miles are a tool to ensure we pay the full costs for food. It gives a clear indication of how far the food has had to travel in order to get to where it’s sold. But, when there are more costs to the environment and the economy beyond the travel distance, especially in the original production process, food miles fall short of giving us the most detailed picture of what’s happening behind the scenes. 


Used alongside other indicators for fair pay, farm or factory emissions and details of the equipment and chemicals used in the production process, it is still something we should aim to minimise. Having trusted local supply chains and transparency helps individuals make ethical and environmental food choices.


Join Bristol Pound and start reducing your money miles as well as your food miles! Download the app or visit this page for more information.


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