Home .Environment Food miles -- from paddock to plate!
Food miles -- from paddock to plate!
Saturday, 17 April 2010 08:48


The world is full of wacky ideas.  But there are few ideas which are wackier than “food miles”!




What are food miles?  Well, it goes like this.  Everyone is worried about climate change.  High energy consumption is a major cause of global warming, and transportation is a big driver of energy consumption.


This brings us to food.  For many countries, an important part of food is imported using air or other transport.  Trade liberalization and globalization mean that a larger number of countries are involved in food trade and food is now travelling much further than it ever did.  In fact, even for those countries which import little food from overseas (like Australia), food has to be transported long distances within the country.  And complex supply chains may mean logistical and organizational efficiency, but more miles travelled.


So, if you are seriously worried about the environment and climate change, you should be seriously worried about how many miles your food has travelled from the paddock to your plate.  In the case of the UK, half the vegetables and 95 per cent of the fruit eaten is imported from overseas.  Chilean blueberries, Argentinian blackberries, Zambian sugarsnap peas, Peruvian asparagus, the list goes on.  The UK is the world’s largest destination for food transported by air.


According to www.climatechoices.org.uk, British food travels an amazing 30 billion kilometers a year!  The Natural Resources Defense Council claims that most produce grown in the US travels an average of 1,500 miles before it gets sold.


Answer, buy local to save the planet!


We have to thank Dr Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London's City University, for coining the idea of 'food miles' back in the 1990s.


Like astrology in western countries or personality blood type analysis in Japan and Korea, food miles theory has caught on like wild fire.  More and more people are pondering the effect of their lifestyle on the global environment.  And as they salivate over a juicy carrot or potato, they feel tempted to ask “how far have you travelled?”.  The distance that your carrot or potato travelled may give some indication of its impact on the environment.  To be fair, some people are genuinely worried about effect of all consumable items on the global environment.


Increasing amounts of food (especially fruit and vegetables) travel by plane to keep their freshness, but such travel emits more CO2 than any other form of transport.  But food which travels by road results in road congestion and accidents, as well as pollution.  And please don’t forget the food miles that you chalk up travelling to and fro the supermarket!  But if you try to reduce your food miles by stocking up your fridge, you will burn up lots of electricity.


Global food mile calculators are very worried about Japan.  This country imports 60 per cent of its food supplies.  Its food miles index has thus been estimated at more than 3 times that of the United States, which has more than twice Japan's population.  Japan is on top of the Food Miles Shame List compiled by UK-based Environment group Safe Alliance.


What’s more, the Japanese allegedly throw away large amounts of food.  This is a disaster for the environment.  The throw-away food contains food miles, and then must find its way into landfill sites which are large emitters of methane, another green house gas.


It was reported that the Association to Preserve the Earth (Daichi wo Mamoru Kai, in Japanese) has launched Japan's first "food miles" cafe, at Jiyugaoka in Tokyo, April 1, 2009.  It indicates on the menu its food-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, in terms of "food miles," or the distance travelled by food to get to the restaurant.  Except for foods with "fair trade" certification, the association uses as much grown-in-Japan ingredients as possible.


Long distance agricultural exporters like Australia and New Zealand are panicked.  And they are right to be worried that it could become a new form of protectionism.  A New Zealand report quotes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds saying “Why are there apples from South Africa, France, New Zealand and the USA on the shelf [of our supermarkets] when the UK has a strong tradition of growing apples? What does it mean for global warming if lamb has been transported from the other side of the world to our shelves and yet lamb is produced locally only a few miles from the supermarket?”.  A German minister is quoted as saying “a far-travelling apple from New Zealand is not so great for climate protection, is it? Regional products also secure jobs.”


Australia and New Zealand have conducted a number of studies which purport to debunk food miles rhetoric.  For example, the New Zealand study argues that New Zealand exports of milk solids, lamb and apples to the UK use much less energy than equivalent UK products, even taking account of the transport costs.


And as IIED and Oxfam have argued the environmental cost of air freighting fruit and vegetable from Africa may be less than buying crops locally in the UK that were produced in energy-intensive greenhouses.  And what’s more, selling vegetables will enable an African farmer to pay for housing, food, medical care and education for his entire family.


So what is the overall assessment of food miles?  Quite simply, the food miles concept is nonsense.


For one, the whole food cycle has a wide variety of effects on the environment.  The production phase produces much more carbon emissions than the transport phase which may produce less than 5 per cent of the carbon emissions of the whole food cycle.  Why isolate just one element, the transportation of that food?


Food is just one item of all the things that are transported.  What is so special about food compared with other forms of travel, like travelling between your home and your office, or tourism, or business travel?


And travel is just one activity, albeit important, which adversely affects the environment.  Why pick on travelling?


There are also methodological problems.  One air food mile does not equal one road food mile in terms of carbon emissions.  This means that even food mile labeling is fallacious (Canada, Sweden and the UK still do food mile labeling).


Meat production consumes much more energy than grain and vegetable production.  And cows give off large amounts of methane.  If you are serious about cutting carbon emissions from the food industry, we should all become vegetarians.


In short, food miles are a misleading indicator of the carbon footprint of food products, an argument made most convincingly in a 2005 report to the UK government.


And food miles are a good trick that local agricultural producers can use to promote consumption of expensive local products rather than imports.  In other words, protectionism!


If you are seriously worried about climate change, you have to put a price on carbon.  This will reduce carbon emissions, but will let the market decide democratically those activities for which carbon emissions will be reduced.


The best that we can say about food miles is that they are a marketing fad.  At worst, they are a distraction from serious measures to tackle climate change.



Food Miles by Caroline Stacey


Food miles calculator


Bog ideas in development: Fair miles – recharting the food miles map by Kelly Rae Chi, James MacGregor and Richard King.

International Institute for Environment and Development, Oxfam


The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development, Final Report Produced for the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs


Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry by Caroline Saunders, Andrew Barber and Greg Taylor

Research Report No. 285, July 2006.  Lincoln University, New Zealand





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