Have you ever had that moment in the supermarket, most often in spring, when you are looking for British produce?
You’re looking for the wee Union Jack flag but instead you are drawn to the bright green beans from Kenya? There is a little black aeroplane on them. The supermarket has labelled this as air freight, and you know it’s wrong, but you feel your hand reaching towards them. You are fed up with eating carrots and leeks all winter; you want lovely, squeaky green beans. Is it okay to put them in your basket?
A few years ago, I would have said no, absolutely not. The concept of food miles was all over the newspapers. I knew the best way to cut the carbon footprint on my plate was to reduce the distance food has travelled.
Then I started investigating food miles for my new book about the ethics of our fruit and vegetables, and found it is not quite as straightforward as it seems. The distance food has travelled is not the only factor to consider when looking at the carbon footprint.
Firstly, there is the mode of transport. For example, a banana that has travelled thousands of miles from Costa Rica is still lower carbon than air freight because it floated here on a huge container ship.
Secondly, there is the production method used in growing the food. A tomato grown in a heated greenhouse in Britain may still be higher carbon than a tomato grown outdoors in Spain and trucked in. A number of reports, most recently the food emissions database produced with the UN and published in science journal Nature, have concluded that transport is a small part of a food’s carbon footprint compared to the emissions from waste and packaging.
Of course, air freight is always going to be higher carbon. Even if we acknowledge that air freighted fruit and vegetables account for less than one per cent of food miles, for the few products that do come by air, emissions are sky high.
The simple solution therefore is to reject fresh produce air freighted into Britain. Avoid food with those stickers showing a little black aeroplane. I would say this is the answer, but I have recently been speaking to the charity Farm Africa about a project helping farmers in Kenya to grow green beans for export. Growing Futures not only improves livelihoods, but is helping young farmers to farm in a more sustainable way, including solar-powered irrigation, introducing bio-pesticides, and a more diverse crop.
I could not bring myself to reject food from this scheme and others like it because the green beans that are not sold in Kenya end up with that aeroplane sticker on them.
Does that mean we should dismiss food miles altogether? I don’t think so. Eating local connects you to the seasons and landscape, and is a good starting point for any meal. Even in the so-called Hungry Gap in spring, when British produce is at a low, it is possible to find interesting things to eat like forced rhubarb and even foraged food like wild garlic.
Like so many of the arguments surrounding climate change, the key to cutting carbon cannot be printed on a simple label. The best I could come up with to replace food miles was a quote by the US writer and farmer Wendell Berry: “Eating is an agricultural act.” Perhaps instead of food miles, we should consider the farmer who grew our food and how they did so, whether he or she is on your doorstep or the other side of the world.
This column was initially published in issue 6 of Wicked Leeks magazine. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu by clicking here.