Food miles | BigGreenSmile.com

Food miles

As the environment has edged up the political agenda, with certain key contributory factors being blamed for global warming, the question of how everyday goods, particularly food reach the shop shelves becomes more important. Food miles is a measurement of the distance that food travels between the fields and the supermarket shelves.

It is common to walk out of the supermarket with apples from South Africa, asparagus from Peru or lamb from New Zealand, not to mention wine.  In fact according to the Food Standards Agency over half of the food we consume in the UK comes from beyond our shores. Increasingly it arrives by airplane -- which produces more CO2 than any other form of transport. Although air-freighted food makes up less than 1% of total UK food miles, according to Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) 2006 report it accounts for 10% of CO2 emissions.  Lorry freight accounts for 52% of all food miles and 65% of emissions in the UK according to the same 2006 Food Sustainability report by Defra.

An important contributing factor to food miles is the car journeys made by shoppers going to and from the supermarket.  These account for 48% of UK food miles and 13% of all UK food miles emissions.  If you are able to go by bus, cycle or walk then please do so. What a difference it could make if 60 million people switched!

Although it may be simple to think that produce from far flung lands is bad and homegrown is better the argument is not always that simple.  Obviously you can't get much better than buying straight from the farmer but for those of us who purchase the vast majority of our food stuffs from the supermarket it is more complex because of the way the large retail supply chains work.  

82% of UK food miles are generated within the UK itself.  To calculate the true carbon footprint of food, which is what really matters when talking about food miles, a number of factors have to be considered. Not least of these are the season, production methods, packaging and method of transport.  A report by the University of Lincoln in New Zealand concludes that due to the farming methods employed in New Zealand (such as using less fertiliser and using renewable energy), lamb imported 11,000 miles from New Zealand to the UK uses less carbon than UK lamb.  The UK cost of production is 2,850kg of CO2 per ton of lamb.  In New Zealand this cost is 990kg per ton, shipped to the UK.  (2006 figures).

According to Blue Skies, a large community-based fruit business that employs 2,000 people across Ghana, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, air-freighting from Africa accounts for less than 0.1% of UK CO2 emissions and uses less energy than producing fruit out of season closer to home where they are grown in heated buildings under heat lamps.  Likewise a 2005 Defra report indicates that it can be more energy efficient to import tomatoes from Spain by road freight than to grow them in the UK in heated greenhouses.

If you are curious about how far your food has travelled you can check it out through Organic Linkers online food miles calculator.

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