What are food miles?
Put simply, food miles are the measure of the distance a food travels from the land to your plate.
Why does our food travel so far?
Food travels further nowadays mainly for three reasons: we buy seasonal food all year round; we buy more processed food; and, we like to pay as little for it as possible.
How much transport is food?
Around a quarter of all road freight (by vehicle miles) is food. The quantity of food miles on our roads has doubled since 1974.
We also add to the mileage
Consumers are also directly responsible for increased food miles. We now travel further for our shopping and use the car more often to do it. Each year, the mean average Briton travels about 135 miles by car to shop for food, more often than not making trips to large, out-of-town supermarkets. Considering that over half the population does not own a car the average motorist travels 270 miles a year.
But I like eating strawberries in winter
Then there’s imported produce. Ninety-five per cent of the fruit and half of the vegetables in Britain are imported. The amount of food being flown into Britain doubled in the 1990s and is predicted to rise further each year. To take one example, strawberries are flown in from warmer climates to satisfy our desire for permanent dietary summertime, and air freight has a far bigger impact on the environment than sea or road travel has.
But I like ready made meals
If you consider a pizza, because of the way the food processing industry works, its ingredients travel around the country from factory to factory, before they make their way to the shops. Even simple items like prepared salad travel far longer distance than they used to.
But surely there is nothing wrong with buying cheap food?
Of course not, as long as we are paying the full costs – something we are not doing at the moment. Cheap foods require superb logistics, that is organising the food from farm to checkout. Companies like Wal-Mart and Tescos are masters at running highly efficient warehousing and processing systems. This means that centralised systems of supermarkets have taken over from local and regional markets and milk or potatoes can be transported many miles to be packaged at a central depot and then sent many miles back to be sold near where they were produced in the first place. Another reason for mounting food miles is comparative labour costs. For example, some British fish is now sent to China (where labour costs are much lower) for processing, then sent back here to be sold.
Food miles is not everything
Reports shows that it is less environmentally friendly to grow tomatoes in Britain under glass than it is to import tomatoes from Spain. The energy needed to heat the glass houses for growing tomatoes in Britain is significantly more than the energy used in transporting tomatoes from Spain where no heating is used because of the warmer climate. This is why the ETA says tax (or trade) CO2 production and the best solution will win.
How far has my food travelled?
It’s very difficult to be sure. A food’s country of origin may be on the label but, beyond this, it’s generally impossible to tell how far the food has travelled and by what means. The means of transport – as well as the distance – is an important consideration. A long journey by boat, for example, has less environmental impact than a shorter one by road. This is part of the reason why good farmers’ markets have a policy of selling food from within a defined local area.
Why else do food miles matter?
The transport of live animals is an important animal welfare issue. The numbers of animals being hauled around the country have grown with the trend for large, centralised abattoirs and meat-processing plants. Animals are also exported and imported to and from other countries. For consumers, there is also the question of quality. Freshly picked fruit and vegetables are better nutritionally, as well as having more taste.
What is being done?
Very little. Under pressure from industry lobbying the national government has not introduced a carbon tax on CO2 producers. That measure alone would begin to reduce food miles. Road user charging would make the food processing industry think very carefully about their transport needs. The national government has set a target of a reduction of food miles in Britain by 20 per cent by 2012. The recent Defra report estimates costs of food miles at £9billion each year, half of which is down to road congestion.
There are some initiatives aimed at improving local food in Britain , at both a regional and a local level. Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, is piloting projects to get local food into local schools, hospitals and shops.
Sustain is part of Food Links, an alliance of British organisations involved in projects aimed at developing local food economies and decreasing the distance that food travels.
What can I do?
Cook fresh, seasonal food – bought that day – with the whole family sitting down at the same time. It might be difficult for some people but by aspiring to get as close to it as you can you will be doing you bit. Being able to walk to your local farmers’ market would be even better.
Buying organic food can also help. Organic farming cuts down on the fossil fuels used to manufacture and transport the chemicals used in mainstream agriculture. It is important to buy locally grown organic food rather than imported, though. To give an idea of how far food travels, a typical basket of 26 imported organic foods may have travelled the distance of six times around the equator.
Does it end once I have eaten?
The concept of food miles also includes waste, which must be transported from your home to a landfill site. The average household throws away more than three kilograms of food and 14 kilograms of food packaging per week. Buying food with as little packaging as possible and composting waste can also make a difference.