Check your food miles

Check your Food Miles

Do you know where your food comes from? Or how far the milk, apples, avocados, coffee beans, and other items you consume, travel to reach you? Many of us are conscious of the health implications of what we eat. But too many of us have very little idea about our food miles4 and their environmental impacts.

Starting to check your food miles4 is one important way to reduce the negative impact of what you eat on people and the planet. What we eat shapes us. But the decisions we make when it comes to what we consume also shape the world around us in profound and significant ways.

What Are Food Miles?

Food miles5 refer to the geographic distance traveled by the food you eat before it reaches you. From farm to fork, the shorter the distance involved, generally speaking, the better the food will be for your health, and the environment – both local and global.

We talk about the concept of food miles4 when we want to take into account the carbon (and other) costs to the environment of moving food from place to place.

Superficially, many people don't think much beyond the journey food takes from the stores to their homes. But a lot of the food we consume daily has come a lot further. Food travels, often long distances, from the ground where a farmer grows it, to processing facilities, to distribution hubs, and on to stores and homes.

Buying local fresh produce from local farms, and better yet, produced in our own gardens, cost a lot less in terms of carbon and the environment. But many of us still choose options that have traveled to us halfway around the world.

A Modern Day Problem

Food miles5 are a rather modern phenomenon. Throughout most of human history, people have eaten food grown or sourced very locally. Without access to our contemporary distribution channels and hyper-connected world, everyone relied on the resources in their more immediate environments.

But today, since the transportation innovations of recent centuries, we have become used to accessing a wide range of global foods. We have lost touch with locally grown produce, and many have forgotten about seasonality altogether.

People buy strawberries in winter when the fruit blooms in June. We buy tropical fruits rather than those grown in their local climate. We expect fresh, green produce on tap, in staggering variety and immediately, even when there is snow on the ground.

Food makes up a big proportion of an individual's carbon footprint. We play a significant role in this supply chain. By making the right choices when it comes to what ends up on our plates, we can make our environment better. Plus the right choice can help to reduce food waste which is a global problem in itself. We can make sustainable and ethical choices surrounding food. Food miles5 should be a significant factor in our equations.

Why Do Food Miles Matter?

Why do food miles matter?
Photo by Matheus Cenali from Pexels

Our current food systems are fragile and wasteful. They are not sustainable long-term and are a major problem in our fight to transition to a post-carbon world. Thinking carefully about what we eat and where it has come from is crucial. This is why food miles4 are such an important thing to consider.

Around 12% of the carbon cost of the food we eat comes from the transportation of that food2. The journey from farm to fork accounts, therefore, for a small yet significant proportion of food's cost to the environment.

Not Straight Forward

But the carbon costs of transportation, while significant, are still only a relatively small part of the equation. The land, energy, and water use of growing and processing crops are all hugely important too. Food miles5 matter – but it is important to remember that they are only part of the picture.

That said, by paying more attention to food miles4 – to where our food comes from – we can build a better picture of what we are eating, and what it truly costs. Transparency in food chains is crucial. The more we know about our food and its origins, the better informed we will be. And the better equipped we will be to make the right decisions.

Another important thing to consider is that by choosing food grown as locally as possible (or even growing at least some of our own) we can help to build resilience in local food systems.

In many locations, we are in the ludicrous position of being surrounded by farm fields that grow food for foreign sale. While local people don't have access to the food grown right there on their doorsteps. This has to change. By buying as locally as possible, we can all play our part in improving our local food production and help them to improve and endure.

How to Calculate Food Miles

When we are trying to work out food miles4 for the items we consume, it is important to take a range of different factors into account. When we calculate food miles4, we should not just think about the literal number of miles involved. We should also think about the complex factors that determine how damaging those miles have been.

For one thing, of course, the mode of transportation matters. Not all food miles4 are equally damaging to the environment. Understanding not only how far the food has come, but also how exactly it reaches us, is crucial to making the right decisions.

Airfreight is important in our 'just in time', 'on-demand' food systems. Air travel and chilled or frozen transportation have allowed food to travel quickly and efficiently around the globe. But these speedy delivery systems come at a high cost. Transporting food and other goods by air carries a carbon footprint around 50 times higher than transporting food and goods more slowly by sea1.

It's not just about Freight

When determining the cost of food miles4, it is also important to think about the type of food. Certain foods have longer storage times and we can safely transport them much further, much more slowly. Longer shelf-life foods often cost less to the environment because suppliers transported the foods using slower and less polluting means.

When calculating food miles4, take all stages of the system into account. You should look not only at the miles from farm to store but also from the store to your home. Making multiple trips in a motor vehicle for only small quantities of food (for example, to a farm shop) can sometimes be more damaging than making one trip to a local market in your town or city.

A widely accepted formula for calculating food miles4 is WASD (Weighted Average Source Distance):

Weighted Average Source Distance

Only Part of the Picture

When trying to work out the environmental credentials of the food that we eat, it is important that we are not blinkered to other environmental costs. Transportation and food miles4 are important. But as mentioned above they are only part of the picture.

Sometimes, paradoxically, it can be 'greener' to buy certain foods from abroad than it is to buy them locally. For example, warm-season crops grown in energy-guzzling greenhouses in cooler climate zones might be more damaging overall than those grown in warmer climes and transported to their final destinations.

At certain times and in certain locations, it may also be a more environmentally friendly choice to buy imported pulses for protein rather than eating locally-reared meat. Reducing meat and dairy consumption can sometimes be a more profound way to make a positive difference3.

It is important to think not only about what we eat and where it comes from but also about when we eat those things. It is best to not only eat food grown locally but also to make sure that, whenever possible, we eat food which is in season.

How To Reduce Food Miles

How to reduce your food miles?
Photo by Tembela Bohle from Pexels

Calculating the environmental cost of what we eat can be a complex business. But the simple and profound truth is that most of us can do far better than we do now. Reducing food miles4 is one of the steps we can all take, right now, to reduce our negative impact. So how can we do so?

One of the most important steps we can take is to buy, whenever we can, directly from (ideally organic) producers. Rather than buying our staples and fresh produce from supermarkets or chain stores, we can go directly to farmers growing in our areas.

We can visit farmer's markets or farm shops or join a CSA or veg box scheme. We can visit wholefood stores (or the aisles often found in zero waste supermarkets) to bulk buy and reduce the trips we take to the store. Tips to reduce food waste include reducing our overall consumption by making the most of leftovers and learning how to store and preserve fresh food for longer.

Conclusion

It could be stressful to worry about your food choices every time you eat. To avoid that mental dilemma, restructure how you source food. Support local farmers and markets and consume in-season fruits and vegetables. When you buy food that has traveled far, make the most of it.

You can also take the ultimate green step and start growing your own. If you have a garden, it is important to remember what a valuable resource this is. No matter how large or small your outside space may be, you will be amazed by how much food you can grow. Even without a garden, you can reduce food miles4 to nil by growing at least a little food on a sunny windowsill.

1You want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food? Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local, by Hannah Ritchie, January 24, 2020
2Carnegie Mellon University. (2008, April 22). Want To Reduce Your Food-related Carbon Footprint? What You Eat Is More Important Than Where It Came From. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 1, 2020
3Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) - "Environmental impacts of food production". Published online at OurWorldInData.org.
4Food Miles. Standard Note: SN/SC/4984. Last updated: 14 June 2012. Author: Christopher Barclay. Section Science and Environment Section. House of Commons Library.
5Food Miles. Standard Note: SN/SC/4984. Last updated: 14 June 2012. Author: Christopher Barclay. Section Science and Environment Section. House of Commons Library.
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