Miles better
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Date: 02 March, 2007



‘Our push towards cheap food can mean centralised distribution and cheap labour increasing food miles hugely.'


Suzanne Elvidge asks what is a food mile and is organic more ethical?.

Click on the orange links to go to other websites with further information.

Food miles’ are defined as the distance from field to plate, and can give an indication of the environmental impact of your supper. Obviously, the shortest possible food miles are for the food grown in your own garden but this isn’t possible for everyone.

How far has your basket travelled? A sample basket studied by the Guardian a few years back totalled a startling 100,943 miles. And it’s not just food - even bottled water can travel over 10,000 miles (I usually drink tap water - it’s cheap, convenient, saves me using mountains of plastic bottles, and my SodaStream, with its refillable CO2 cartridges adds a bit of a fizz).

Since 1978, the amount of food moved by HGVs each year in the UK has increased by 23%, and the average distance for each trip has increased by 50%. This report, produced by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), estimates that transporting food to and around the UK produced 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2002 of which 10 million tones were emitted in the UK (1.8% of total UK carbon dioxide emissions).

One way to reduce your food miles and carbon emissions is to buy locally produced food. Try using a local farmers’ market or a find a local veg box scheme. Buying locally can also have a positive impact on the local area by creating jobs and fostering community. It can cost a bit more, but our push towards cheap food can mean centralised distribution and cheap labour (even including British food being processed in China), increasing food miles hugely. Buying local food can also be greener than buying organic food.

Shopping without regard to food miles makes us lose our sense of seasonality - if you are going to eat locally (or grow your own), you will have to get used to whatever is in season. I’m writing this in March, so food in season is purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflower, spring greens, radishes, parsley (sorry, try this one...), early rhubarb and leeks, with carrots, beetroot, potatoes, apples and pears from store.

But is it that easy?

So, up to here, the idea of food miles has been straightforward. You buy something from a local grower and it doesn’t have to travel so far, so you pollute less. But it seems it may not be quite that simple:

  • Bringing flowers by road from the Netherlands could create more emissions than flying flowers from Africa.
  • Growing food in the UK out of season can produce more emissions than importing it as freight is only one component – for example the carbon footprint of New Zealand lamb is less than that of UK lamb.
  • Meat reared in the UK may be fed on forage grown overseas (this has been accused of creating 'ghost acres' in countries like Thailand and may have travelled long distances for slaughter.
  • Cutting down on food miles could have a negative impact on African income.

So what can we do?

Shall we just give up on food miles then? No, it’s just not as easy as I thought.

  • Think about cutting your own personal food miles – if you use a supermarket, get the food delivered (If you go via Charity Checkout you can get a donation made to Christian Aid), or combine it with another journey.
  • Grow some of your own food and use locally produced in-season food where you can.
  • Reduce your waste, as the transport to landfill is still part of the food miles.

There isn’t an simple solution. However, I believe the key thing is to be aware of what you buy and respect the food you eat and where it came from.


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