Check your food miles

What Are Food Miles? Why They Matter and How to Check Them

Do you know where your food comes from? Or how far do 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 little idea about our food miles and their environmental impacts.

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

What Are Food Miles?

Food miles refer to the geographic distance food travels before it reaches you. From farm to fork, the shorter the distance involved, the better the food will be for your health and the local and global environment.

We talk about the concept of food miles when we want to consider the carbon costs to the environment of food transported from place to place.

Food travels, often long distances, from the ground where a farmer grows it to processing facilities, distribution hubs, stores, and homes. More often than not, this transportation requires burning fossil fuels to power trucks, planes, and so on - all of which pollute and contribute to climate change.

In fact, a recent report from Nature Food found that global food miles account for as much as 20% of total food system emissions. The same study also found that global food system emissions from transporting fruit and veg release nearly twice as many emissions as it takes to produce them.

Superficially, many people don't think much beyond the journey food takes from the stores to their homes. But much of the food we consume daily has come a lot further.

Buying local fresh produce from the local farmers' market, and better yet, produced in our own gardens, costs a lot less in terms of carbon, greenhouse gases, and the environment.

We can also avoid tossing food scraps that might make for good compost or a base for a stew or buying less also helps. But many of us still choose options that have traveled halfway around the world.

A Modern-Day Problem

Food miles are a relatively 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 snow is on the ground.

Food makes up a considerable proportion of an individual's carbon footprint. We play a significant role in the food production supply chain. Moreover, we can improve our environment by making the right choices regarding what ends up on our plates.

We can make sustainable and ethical choices surrounding food. Plus, the right choice can help reduce food waste, which is a global problem. Food miles should be a significant factor in our equations.

Why Do Food Miles Matter?

Bunch of packaged fresh salaed produces in a supermarket
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 comes from is crucial. This is why food miles are such an important thing to consider.

Around 12% of the food miles emissions associated with the food we eat come from the transportation of that food. Therefore, the journey from farm to fork accounts for a small yet significant proportion of food's carbon footprint and 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 used for growing and processing crops are also hugely important.

Many processed foods, for example, can draw on significant water and energy resources to turn the humble bean into a can of baked beans housed in an aluminum can. Food miles matter – but it is important to remember that they are only part of food production emissions.

That said, by paying more attention to food miles – to where our food comes from – we can better understand what we are eating and what it truly costs.

Transparency in food trade supply chains is crucial, and this can prove complex when considering processed food and its many ingredients from many places. Processed food typically travels over 1300 miles in the US to reach our plates.

However, 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. At the same time, local people don't have access to the food grown right there on their doorsteps.

This has to change. By buying locally sourced food as much as possible, we can all play our part in improving our local food supply and production - and help them to improve and endure.

How Are Food Miles Calculated?

When trying to calculate food miles for the items we consume, it is important to consider a range of different factors. We should not just think about the total number of miles involved. We should also consider the complex factors determining how damaging those transported food miles have been.

For one thing, of course, the mode of food transportation matters. Not all food miles are equally damaging to the environment. Understanding how far food products have come and how exactly they reach us is crucial to understanding the food miles concept and making the right decisions.

Air transportation is important in our 'just in time' and 'on-demand' food systems. Air transport and chilled or frozen transportation have allowed food to travel quickly and efficiently around the globe.

But these speedy, long-distance food transportation 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 for roughly the equivalent food mileage. Further, food transportation via ocean shipping is less energy-intensive than air, resulting in more greenhouse gas emissions.

It's not just about Freight.

When determining the cost of food miles, it is also important to consider 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 transport the foods using slower and less polluting means with lower carbon footprints.

When calculating how far our food has traveled, consider all stages of the system. You should look at the miles from farm to store and from the nearest food 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 miles is WASD (Weighted Average Source Distance):

Weighted Average Source Distance - food miles equation

Another formula, the Weighted Average Emissions Ratio (WAER), also considers greenhouse gas emissions associated with transport mode.

Only Part of the Picture

When trying to work out the environmental credentials of the food we eat, we mustn't be blinkered by other environmental costs. Transportation and food miles 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 out-of-season foods grown in energy-guzzling greenhouses in cooler climate zones producing more greenhouse gas emissions might be more damaging overall than those grown in warmer climes and transported to their final destinations.

At certain times and in specific locations, buying imported pulses for protein may also be a more environmentally friendly choice than eating animal-based food and locally-reared meat. Reducing meat and dairy consumption can sometimes be a more profound way to make a positive difference2.

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

How To Reduce Food Miles

Woman browsing local fresh produce market
Photo by Tembela Bohle from Pexels.

Calculating the environmental cost of what we eat can be a complex business. Various takes on the relationship between food miles, climate change, and ecological degradation exist. However, a common theme is that producing and transporting throughout our food system contributes to our mounting global carbon emissions.

The simple and profound truth is that most of us can do far better than we do now. Reducing food miles is one of the steps we can all take right now to reduce our negative environmental impact. So, how can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with our food?

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

We can visit farmer's markets or farm shops or join a CSA or veg box scheme. We can visit whole food stores (or the aisles often found in zero-waste supermarkets) to bulk buy and reduce the trips we take to the store.

Sustainable agriculture developed principles that seek to produce our food with minimal environmental harm. Look for labels such as the Red Tractor in the UK and Sustainably Grown and Rainforest Alliance Certified in the US to help you understand the provenance of your food choices. These accreditations can assist you toward lower food mileage associated with long-distance food transport.

Tips to reduce food waste include reducing our overall consumption by making the most of leftovers and learning to store and preserve fresh food for longer. Further, red meat contributes disproportionately to food-related emissions, and reducing red meat consumption is better for our health and the planet.

Conclusion

Worrying about your food choices every time you eat could be stressful. To avoid that mental dilemma, restructure how you source food. Support local producers, 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 this valuable resource. 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 miles to nil by growing at least a little food on a sunny windowsill.

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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
2Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) - "Environmental impacts of food production". Published online at OurWorldInData.org.
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