Counting your food miles

What's the real environmental impact of your weekly shop? Caspar van Vark reveals the truth about food miles.

An obsession with locally sourced food is sweeping the nation. Restaurant menus boast of the local provenance of their ingredients, while TV chefs remind us that British is best. If we buy a pack of mange tout from Kenya, we do so with a vague sense of shame.

The environmental impact of food miles is now a big issue for shoppers and supermarkets. On the surface, it seems simple.– buying apples from Dorset must be better for the planet than transporting them all the way from New Zealand.

The ethics of food

The Soil Association says that air freight can generate 177 times more greenhouse gas than shipping. In his book How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, Chris Goodall calculates that flying one 225g bag of spinach from California to the UK produces 1kg of CO2. Incredibly, you only need to buy 15 bags of spinach to exceed the total annual fossil fuel use of a typical Afghani.

That’s easy then: don’t buy the air-freighted spinach – except it’s not that straightforward because measuring ‘food miles’ alone oversimplifies the issue. It’s more meaningful to look at the total environmental impact of getting the food to your plate.

Kenyan beans

Fruit from the Netherlands may clock up fewer miles travelling to the UK than a packet of Kenyan beans, but how were they produced?

The Kenyan beans were probably grown outdoors by a small-scale producer, whose traditional outdoor farming methods emit minimal CO2. On the other hand, red peppers from the Netherlands will have been grown in a greenhouse. The peppers are more local, but considerably more energy has gone into producing them.

Many African producers have argued against putting too much emphasis on food miles. Blue Skies, which air-freights fruit to the UK, say that the total carbon footprint of African produce remains less than the same product grown in a greenhouse in Europe, even after it has been flown over. There may also be additional ethical arguments for supporting a farmer in the developing world.

Environmental charity Greenpeace believes that Africa is far more vulnerable to climate change than it is responsible for it. We shouldn’t just be considering food miles – what about all the people who are still jetting off on their weekend city breaks? This type of behaviour smacks of hypocrisy.

The politics of food miles

Nevertheless, Keith Abel, founder of the organic vegetable box scheme Abel & Cole, is adamant that we should not be air-freighting food.

“Yes, there’s the argument that we’re putting Kenyan farmers out of business,” he says. “But should I fly EasyJet to keep its pilots in a job? Those same farmers could switch to producing sustainable biofuels that don’t need air-freighting.”

The UK’s concern over food miles is not just a worry for farmers in developing countries. New Zealand (NZ) exports dairy, lamb and apples to the UK – all products that are grown here as well.

The worry for NZ farmers is that UK consumers obsessed with food miles might automatically rule out their produce. What they may not realise is that 99.75 per cent of NZ produce arrives by sea , which is much more energy-efficient.

In 2006, Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, reported that the energy used in producing lamb in the UK is four times higher than that used by NZ producers – even after including the energy needed to transport the lamb around the world.

Seasonal eating

So what’s the solution? According to the Centre for Environmental Strategy at Surrey University, it makes the most environmental sense to buy British apples during our autumn and winter. By the spring and summer they’ll have been in storage for so long, which uses energy, that it’s more efficient to buy imported apples.

The assumption here, however, is that we actually need to buy apples in June and asparagus in December.

“People want tomatoes all year round,” says Keith Abel. “Well, get over it. Twenty per cent of our carbon footprint comes from food, and that’s why. We didn’t have those [foods] 15 years ago, but now supermarkets want to sell us all these things throughout the year.”

What does that mean for your shopping basket? There are few absolute answers – banning all exports and imports is unrealistic and who really wants to live like that? We still want coffee and lemons, and they don’t grow in Kent.

As for those air-freighted African vegetables, it’s up to you to weigh up the environmental and social issues. Perhaps they are a better choice than local greenhouse beans – if you’re buying them in January.

The easy solution is to stick with seasonal eating – consider eating more parsnips in January, asparagus in May, strawberries in July and apples in October. That’s when they’re in season here, so the decision is already made for you.

Team Green Britain and London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Ltd (LOCOG) do not endorse any of the products, companies, organisations, opinions or websites that have been mentioned in this article. The content of this article has merely been provided as background to, or discussion on, various topical issues relating to the environment and it is not necessarily representative of the views of Team Green Britain and LOCOG. Further, any figures and calculations noted in this article are estimates (unless otherwise specified), and may vary in light of numerous factors and readers are advised to undertake their own research in relation to the facts and figures applicable to their particular circumstance.

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