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Is it the end of the road for food miles?

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

    Comments

    clivethechive

    4 Months 2 Weeks

    Interesting and topical.
    Recent, peer reviewed research demonstrates that food miles are less important than emissions embodied in production, though of course carbon emissions are just one metric of environmental sustainability.
    https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food#the-carbon-footprint-of-eu-diets-where-do-emissions-come-from

    1 Reply

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    Louise Gray

    4 Months 1 Week

    Thanks Clivethechive that report is really interesting. I will read in more detail. I guess what it is saying about cutting down on meat is well known now as a ‘low hanging fruit’ for cutting our carbon footprint from food. So what do we do next? Cutting food miles seems an obvious choice but it’s such a complicated area. Air freight is relatively high for what you are producing and allows air travel so should we boycott it? Or should we accept it as a small part of the system and be looking bigger wins that can have a greater impact? Like food waste?

    1 Reply

    clivethechive

    4 Months 1 Week

    Hi Louise,
    I think the first priority for everyone now should be the lobbying of their MP and government ministers, I wrote to my MP yesterday about support for the CEE bill. Rapid, systemic change is essential and this can only be be achieved by government and big business with pressure from voters and consumers..
    That aside, I would target the dominate sources of food emissions first. Our family minimises the consumption of processed foods - this reduces emissions and plastic waste. We try to live mostly on fresh fruit, salad and veg from local suppliers or from the garden. Home grown food has the added advantage that food waste is much reduced. You only need to pick what you want to eat for your next meal. On a third of an acre we currently grow enough fruit, veg and salad to meet out basic needs for 6 months of the year, but more is possible given careful planning and time.

    1 Reply

    Louise Gray

    4 Months

    That's a really good point about lobbying our political representatives to make bigger change . You hit the nail on the head when you say careful planning and time. Like a lot of people, I am quite sure if I did more, I would grow more of my own. Something I hope to improve on and teach my daughter!

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    Comments Editor

    4 Months 2 Weeks

    Thanks for sharing clivethechive - the stats on biodiversity are so shocking - it states that' 94% of mammal biomass (excluding humans) is livestock. This means livestock outweigh wild mammals by a factor of 15-to-1.4 Of the 28,000 species evaluated to be threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List, agriculture and aquaculture is listed as a threat for 24,000 of them.5#' Organic agriculture supports much greater biodiversity, with Soil Association research showing plant, insect and bird life is up to 50% more abundant on organic farms https://www.soilassociation.org/take-action/organic-living/why-organic/better-for-wildlife/

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    MetLink

    4 Months 2 Weeks

    Really interesting article! I'm looking at creating some resources for secondary maths and science (to respond for the demand for more better/ climate change education by helping students realise that the skills they are being taught are relevant) and one idea I've had is to look at the carbon emissions from transporting/ storing an apple and how they vary by month and by country of origin. Is there any way you could help me find some simple, relevant data for this or any related problem? Thanks!

    2 Replies

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    Comments Editor

    4 Months 2 Weeks

    Hi MetLink, will check in with Louise and let you know her thoughts.

    1 Reply

    MetLink

    4 Months 1 Week

    Thanks! have you been able to get any response? If it helps, the resource will reach a lot of schools, and will be free.

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    Louise Gray

    4 Months

    Dear MetLink

    Thanks for your query. I have actually had a lot of young people asking me about this. This generation want to know how they can make a difference to climate change through what they eat. They know to eat less meat. But how can they reduce carbon through the fruits and vegetables they choose to eat?

    Apples is an excellent example! You may be aware of a quite famous study that came out of Lincoln University in New Zealand that claimed that lamb, dairy and apples from New Zealand were lower carbon. The study claimed that because New Zealand has such fertile land and farms on such a large scale, it has lower carbon footprint for food production, even when you factor in shipping.

    It caused quite a stir as obviously British farmers were incensed that New Zealand lamb could be promoted over buying British!

    https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/6502843.pdf


    Since that report there have been a number questioning the statistics. The UK Government looked into it and concluded that shipping apples accounted for a lot more carbon.

    http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Module=More&Location=None&ProjectID=15001


    Another study compared New Zealand apples with German apples and concluded that even when you take into account the energy used to store German apples, rather than eat fresh from New Zealand, it was better for the environment to eat local.

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7756944_Food_Miles_for_Thought-Energy_Balance_for_Locally-Grown_versus_Imported_Apple_Fruit


    For an ordinary consumer like you and me it is quite confusing. The trouble is how the carbon footprint is calculated will differ from study to study. In the case of apples, you have to consider the full ‘lifecycle analysis’ from orchard to consumption. So this would include the energy used to manufacture the fertiliser and other pesticides (obviously this can be less in the case of organic), the equipment used to pick the apples, the machinery used in processing, then there is shipping, packing, storage, distribution, re-packing and consumer use and disposal.

    It can be frustrating, but I think we have to accept the complexity and try to make the best decisions we can based on the information available.

    Personally, I think that when British apples are in season, from August to October, we should certainly eat British. It not only cuts food miles but supports local farmers and the UK’s unique orchard biodiversity.

    https://ptes.org/campaigns/traditional-orchard-project/orchard-biodiversity/

    Many British apples are bred for storage and will store well right up to May.

    https://britishapplesandpears.co.uk/production/the-british-season-apples/

    Why not encourage your students to find out some of the unique apple varieties in their local area?

    It is in the ‘Apple gap’in late Spring early summer that you could possibly argue that New Zealand apples have a place since they are fresh and British apples could have been in refrigerated storage for a long time and therefore be higher carbon. Or you could eat some of the wonderful soft fruit we have in this country instead?!

    Good luck with it all. I think apples is a good example of how understanding seasons and local food could help your environment. But at the same time, it is important students understand the globalised world they live in and the complex arguments.

    Do let me know if you have any more questions @loubgray

    A good start on food miles is the original study by Sustain

    https://www.sustainweb.org/publications/the_food_miles_report/

    And this defra study

    https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130125041710/http://www.defra.gov.uk/statistics/files/defra-stats-foodfarm-food-transport-foodmiles-050715.pdf

    The sustainable food trust are also very good

    https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/tracing-local-food/

    2 Replies

    MetLink

    4 Months

    that's a fantastic reply, thank you so much - I'll see what we can do with it!

    0 Reply

    MetLink

    4 Months

    that's a fantastic reply, thank you so much - I'll see what we can do with it!

    0 Reply

    Louise Gray

    Louise Gray likes to know exactly where her food comes from. For her first book, The Ethical Carnivore, she only ate animals she killed herself. Her conclusion was that meat should be treated with the reverence it deserves and we should all be eating less for the sake of climate change. The book won Best Food Book and Best Investigative Work at the Guild of Food Writers Awards. In her new monthly investigative series for Wicked Leeks, Roots to Fruits, Louise takes one fruit or vegetable a month and distils their complex stories into a column to help us make better decisions. Having recently become a mother, her aim is to find ways to buy fruit and vegetables that have a positive impact on the planet for the next generation. And yes, she will be trying to find out if avocados can ever be ethical.

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