food miles

Max makes a point about food miles in the comments here:

I am very concerned by the air-miles of food and I am trying not to buy any food coming from the other side of the world.

Any effort to cut on personal travel by air would be made completely irrelevant if one eats many times his/her bodyweight of antipodean food.

I tend to agree that it is something we ought to think about a bit more than we do.  So let’s do some reading. 

Here’s a report preparedfor Defra last year, the authors make a number of key findings:

  • A single indicator based on total food kilometres is an inadequate indicator of sustainability. The impacts of food transport are complex, and involve many trade-offs between different factors.
  • Food transport has significant and growing impacts. Food transport accounted for an estimated 30 billion vehicle kilometres in 2002, of which 82% are in the UK.
  • The direct environmental, social and economic costs of food transport are
    over £9 billion each year, and are dominated by congestion.

So we’ve got the scale of the problem, that most of it is being created within the UK and that measuring it isn’t straight forward.  They do however say that:

  • Transport of food by air has the highest CO2 emissions per tonne, and is the fastest growing mode. Although air freight of food accounts for only 1% of food tonne kilometres and 0.1% of vehicle kilometres, it produces 11% of the food transport CO2 equivalent emissions.

CO2 emissions associated with UK food tranpsort

As you can see from the graph on the right our trips to and from the supermarket current cause as much damage to the environment as importing and exporting food by air.

The report also tries to give some estimates of the social costs associated with the transport of food.  The authors admit their methodology is crude (in parts), but it gives an interesting picture of the causes of the £9 billion they say food transport costs us as a society each year. As you can see from the graph below almost half falls on (y)our cars.

social costs of food transport

One interesting point that I found from reading the report is that sourcing food more locally may have unintended consequences for the environment.  The report says, “More local sourcing can greatly reduce the distance travelled by food, but the reduction in transport impacts may be offset to some extent by the use of smaller vehicles or lower load factors.”  Understandably the authors have called for more research in this area.

But again, perspective is all.  The report points out that food miles in 2002 made up “1.8% of the total annual UK CO2 emissions”, so clearly, while this is something to get a grip on, it’s not the most significant cause of emissions.  To understand that we need to look elsewhere.

It looks like there is a strategy for making the food industry more sustainable, which has to be welcome news.

About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
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1 Response to food miles

  1. Max says:

    Thanks Andrew, very well put.

    A few considertion after the first read and a quick look at the documents that you here linked.

    1) I tend to disagree about the possible unwanted consequences of locally sourced food, the reason being that air-food would have to be transported locally somewhere else too, the fact that it made one air-travel doesn’t mean that it hasn’t travelled on small lorries before, some food would have been produced on large land holdings with an efficient transport system, some others would have been bought in a fragmented way at local markets.

    2) 1.8% in 2002 is not that big share of the total but I feel that it’s growing, I don’t know percentually but surely in absolute terms. By my personal observation the amount of antipodean food on display in supermarkets has grown enormously recently with wine being the most noticeable item for me (because I noticed it not because I drink a lot of it), the 2005 Defra report also speaks of this trend but last data refer to 2002 and the curve of this trend could have become a lot steeper in the meanwhile.

    3) Completely agree on cars and how their impact is hard to top and the fact that people could make an effort to leave it at home when possible. It also helps to buy less. Like you I also don’t have a driving licence – I have a bycicle though.

    Here’s another easy environmental pledge. I will always put a lead on pots when cooking!

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