Why should I be aware of this?
Food miles are the “farm to consumer pathways of food” — and these pathways can be quite convoluted — purely to suit the manufacturer’s cost considerations. We seldom know the hidden story behind the production and distribution of the food products we eat. Take a startling example described by Tim Lobstein in Living Earth magazine: “To produce a small glass jar of strawberry yogurt for sale in Stuttgart, strawberries were being transported from Poland to West Germany and then processed into jam to be sent to southern Germany. Yogurt cultures came from north Germany, corn and wheat flour from the Netherlands, sugar beet from east Germany, and the labels and aluminum covers for the jars were being made over 300km away. Only the glass jar and the milk were produced locally.” And the story is the same for almost every supermarket food product that we buy.
The alarming effects of climate change on the earth have made people sit up and think about food miles. In fact, food miles are now recognised to be contributing very significantly to the carbon footprint.
All about food miles
Over the past century, patterns of food production, distribution and consumption have experienced a radical change, unfortunately with complete disregard to the environment. The trend has been to centralise food supply and sales in the hands of few large players, and to cater to food demands and whims of consumers, no matter how wasteful and ecologically harmful they are.
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), of the UK, put down the following basic reasons for the growth of food miles — and these apply to any country around the globe.
- Globalisation of the food industry with increased imports and exports, and ever wider sourcing of food both within the UK and abroad.
- Food supply has been concentrated in the hands of fewer and larger suppliers, partly to meet demand for bulk year-round supplies of uniform produce.
- Major changes in delivery patterns with most goods now routed through supermarket regional distribution centres using larger heavy goods vehicles.
- Centralised and concentrated sales in supermarkets where a weekly shop by car has replaced frequent pedestrian shop visits.
- Another reason, not listed by the DFRA, is sending food to other continents for processing and packing (since labour is cheap), and flying it back all the way for consumption.
By 2005, the carbon footprint had become such a serious cause for concern, that the DEFRA commissioned a report to look into “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development” — and indeed it is a key indicator of sustainability. In response to this concern, several large supermarket chains are planning to declare the food miles of each product on the labels. For most of them, of course, it is again a business driven decision. But the green movement can take credit for the fact that at least the Tescos of the world are sitting up and addressing the issue. See Climate change.
What can I do?
- Check the labels of food products to see the country of origin — and buy locally-made items, or those that come from the country closest to you.
- Eat seasonal fruits and vegetables as they would have been locally produced and not imported to keep up the year-round supply of produce out of season (you can check what’s in season from many websites).
- Shop at your local farmers’ market, local farm produce shops, and directly from farms that sell.
- Buy from your local butcher, vegetable seller and fishmonger — you will be supporting small shops, travelling less for your shopping, as well as getting fresh local produce.
- Walk, cycle or take the bus to your local shops and do your bit to save on green miles.
- Try and grow your own vegetables — this can evolve from a hobby, to a passion, to a lifestyle change.
- Energy conservation
- Carbon Footprint
- Fossil Fuels
- Resource conservation
- Ethical Consumer
- Low Impact Living
- Invasive Species
- Climate change
- Measuring food by the mile
- The Validity of Food Miles
- Food Miles and Sustainability