How should I think about how far my food has travelled?

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The truth behind food miles!

How can I buy more sustainably? Here are our Top 5 Tips to buying sustainably

There are more miles involved than you might think

“Food Miles” as a term seems relatively self-explanatory: the distance your food has had to travel to come from farm to table. In practice however, it’s not that simple. The complexity comes from the fact that the journey from field to plate isn’t always direct. It includes the journey from farm to processor, to perhaps another processor, and another, then the trip to the distribution centre, followed by the retailer, then in to your home and finally from your home to landfill. This journey is very complex, and is one that we will try to break down and understand below.

Food Miles as a measure of sustainability has received much criticism over the past few years. This is because defining the carbon footprint of what’s on our plate by only its mileage is to look at it from a simplistic, one-sided point of view, and may often fail to take into account the many complex processes within the supply chain itself such as the way it was grown and produced, its overall impact on the environment, the way it was transported, the way it was stored, and much more besides. Looking solely at how far a carrot has travelled to be on your plate doesn’t really tell you anything.

Transportation has a footprint but its more about what is being transported and when

The concept of eating as locally as possible has gained traction in the past few years and for good reasons, but when looking at this from a food miles perspective transportation isn’t the only metric we should be looking at. The type of food and how it’s produced is also important. If we look at meat for example, the carbon footprint of its transportation is much smaller than the carbon footprint of its production. Producing meat is extremely taxing on the environment, from the amount of water required, the waste produced, the animal’s feed coming from across the world, to the amount of greenhouse gases produced, and so the carbon footprint of meat far outweighs the footprint of the same amount of calories from bananas that have flown across the globe. Generally speaking it is far easier and more impactful to cut down on your meat consumption than to try to just “eat locally”, for example. And with meat in particular, even local meat can be more carbon intensive because the animals must be housed in heated facilities during the cold winter months.[1] The biggest thing you can do to lower your carbon footprint is to eliminate or drastically cut down on the amount of animal products you consume.

The carbon footprint of local out of season produce far exceeds that of local miles transportation

Eating a plant-forward diet is going to have a bigger effect than just trying to buy locally. “For a vegan, food miles contribute to a larger portion of their food’s carbon footprint. Plant-based foods have lower production footprints, so transportation is comparatively more significant. Even then, the raw mileage is hardly informative for determining carbon footprints; the mode of transportation is the key variable. Cargo ships are the most efficient, followed by trains, then trucks, and lastly planes.”[2]

This means that eating a tomato grown in England in the middle of December, despite being a ‘local’ purchase, is surprisingly worse than buying a tomato coming from South America which has traveled over to the UK by plane, or from Spain in a truck. The carbon footprint of the English tomato is surprisingly much bigger, why is that?

The British tomato in December will have been grown indoors in a heated greenhouse, and that alone far outweighs the carbon footprint of the plane ride the South American tomato took. Taking into account the seasonality of the food we eat is therefore more important than looking at its origin. Growing produce locally that is out of season uses a tremendous amount of energy, from heated greenhouses, tractors burning diesel, fertilizers used etc. Ultimately, the desire for an endless summer on our plates is what’s truly detrimental to the environment.

Let’s look a lettuces as another example : “In Britain these are grown in winter, in greenhouses or polytunnels which require heating. At those times it is better – in terms of carbon emissions – to buy field-grown lettuce from Spain. But in summer, when no heating is required, British is best. Picking the right sources for your apples and lettuces depends on the time of year.”[3]

The combination of mode of transport, product and time of year can be more important that the actual food miles

In some cases the mode of transportation matters more than the actual mileage. For example,  some products that are flown from Spain to the UK might have a far higher footprint than shelf stable products that are shipped over all the way from Asia due to the transportation carbon cost outweighing the cost of production. Cargo ships are the most efficient method of transportation, followed by trains, trucks and lastly planes. “In many cases, these shelf-stable foods (such as apples, pears, bananas in comparison with perishables such as fish and berries for example) have lower carbon footprints when produced internationally because the carbon cost of production far outweighs that of transportation.”[4]

We can buy both locally and sustainably. 

Buying locally is clearly fantastic for a number of reasons, not least the boost and support it gives to your local economy, but generally speaking local food is neither inherently “good” nor “bad”; what it comes down to is for consumers “to define the values they hope to support through their purchasing decisions and [to] think critically about when and where local foods support those values.”[5]

What’s important is for us to get back in touch with how and when produce is grown, and to accept that having berries in the supermarket year round is neither normal nor sustainable. The answer is to focus on local produce when in season and, where possible, to eat a plant-based diet. Because our economy is so global, solely looking at food miles is not the solution, and whereas in the past most countries would specialise in specific produce, nowadays we have a tendency to want to produce everything and be independent, without having to rely on any other countries to provide for our population. This, sadly, is not a sustainable solution and no matter how much we may want it, Europe, especially other Europe/UK will never have the right climate to grow bananas naturally. We must ensure we balance seasonality with demand in order to minimise the total impact our food choices have on the planet.

Summary

  • The location of the retailer or even the producer are not enough to determine whether a product is low miles or not. Consider the type of product and the season.
  • Food miles may be only a very small proportion of the overall carbon footprint of a product. Look at what you are consuming to see where the bigger overall reduction can be made.
  • Switching to consuming produce in season has a very significant effect on the total carbon footprint. Enjoy the exploring the produce of different seasons.
  • Consider the mode of transport in relation to the actual produce. If non local or even out of season produce can be transported via ship over long distances that is far better than airfreight.
  • Support local producers with consumption of in season produce for the lowest carbon outcomes.

[1] https://green.harvard.edu/news/do-food-miles-really-matter

[2] https://green.harvard.edu/news/do-food-miles-really-matter

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/mar/23/food.ethicalliving

[4] https://green.harvard.edu/news/do-food-miles-really-matter

[5] https://green.harvard.edu/news/do-food-miles-really-matter

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