January 5, 2022
Have you ever tucked into a delicious meal and wondered what the food miles were for that plate of food? Probably not, but food miles, seasonality, 100% availability and the associated carbon footprint of producing, transporting, and selling produce is something that is regularly discussed in the sustainability sector.
What are food miles?
Food miles is the distance food is transported from the time of production to when it reaches the consumer. Sometimes food miles can be very short. For example, sometimes I drive (don’t worry I am getting my granddads old bike next week, as he upgrades to a trike) to my local farm shop and buy produce that has been picked the previous day from the farm. Other times food miles might equate to this:
Whilst this looks awful (and it is), an interesting fact about food miles is that it has the smallest impact in terms of food emissions. It is in fact food production that has a bigger impact on the environment.
Supply and demand
I’ll admit, before I started researching and writing this Blog, I thought food miles were bad, but in fact it all relates to seasonality and availability. We as a species are now so used to being able to get any product, year-round, and consequently that is what the supermarkets provide for us.
The most prominent example is the tomato, which consumers want all year-round. It is more carbon intensive to grow tomatoes here in the UK all year-round using heated greenhouses to create the right growing climate, than it is to grow them in warmer climates, such as Spain and import them. A study showed that even when transported by truck, British-grown tomatoes have more than three times the carbon footprint of imported Spanish tomatoes! So, buying local may mean lower food miles, but doesn’t necessarily mean a lower carbon footprint.
Moving from tomatoes and on to apples. During the British apple season, local apples have a lower carbon footprint than those imported from New Zealand. However, for the rest of the year, imported apples can have a lower carbon footprint due to the energy used to refrigerate British apples.
Buy food that is in season in your local area
The challenge is being aware of when produce is in season locally and to then, for rest of the year, buy imported produce. However, it seems incredibly backwards to not support UK produce.
The ultimate challenge is to stop purchasing produce that isn’t in season in your local area. This will help to reduce food import demand, but it will take a monumental change for this to happen.
Other environmental and social impacts
There are other environmental and social impacts which need to be considered when deciding what food to buy, which I haven’t even begun to delve into.
Examples include water scarcity in Spain, which is needed to grow tomatoes, loss of income in the developing world, are practices sustainable, the impact of changing demand, soil degradation caused by farming intensification here in the UK, to keep up with seasonal produce demand.
In summary food miles is not a particularly good metric to measure the impact of your food consumption. In fact, consuming less meat, buying organic produce, and reducing your food waste will have a much bigger impact on the environment and your carbon footprint.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog represent those of the author, Ben Richardson, and are not those of recycle-more, Valpak Limited or any other organisation.