Food miles: Does distance matter?

'Local' and 'seasonal' may be culinary buzzwords. But imported foods are not nearly as bad for the planet as we're led to believe, argues chef Peter Gordon

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:29

"Food miles" have become something of a fad just lately. The phrase is used to promote the push for seasonal, regional, British food. It's always mentioned as the primary reason for boycotting imported foods – because their global transport is supposedly destroying the planet. However, while I'm certainly a fan of British produce and a champion of the burgeoning farmers' market scene here, I do worry that the reality of a national diet based solely on non-imported foods, an objective fuelled by the spectre of so-called food miles, is a dull one indeed.

No more ginger pound-cake, or Cornish saffron bread. No more espressos on your way to work, or champagne to celebrate the wonderful moments in your life. In fact, there'll be no more cups of tea in the afternoon and maybe, for those purists on the English mainland, no Irish whiskeys on a winter's day! All these things are brought in from afar, as well as everyday ingredients such as cinnamon, olive oil, avocados and maple syrup. Worcestershire sauce, containing tamarind, has food miles attached to it. Whatever, the purists would say – ban them all.

Every foodstuff has a carbon footprint, which is the only honest way to gauge environmental impact. However, this is often confused with food miles. Food miles are simply the distance the product has travelled to get to you – even a potato has food miles. A carbon footprint is measured by the amount of CO2 produced, and the total energy used, to get the product to market. According to a report from the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs in 2005, food miles are an inadequate indicator of sustainability.

Bear in mind that carbon is produced all along the food chain – from the energy used to staff the head office, plant and harvest the food and package it, to the power for the trucks to deliver the produce, keep the chillers cold, and ultimately getting the produce from the check-out to your home. It is the increase of CO2 in our atmosphere that is believed to be heating the planet up and it is something that has to be addressed.

As a New Zealander, based in the UK for some 18 years now, I've followed with dismay the recent criticism levelled at my homeland (which is incidentally a nuclear-free zone, unlike Britain) regarding our apparent contribution to the destruction of the planet. There seems to be a perception that a vast amount of food imported from New Zealand (NZ) is freighted by plane. In fact, 99.75 per cent of NZ's food and beverage imports into the UK arrive by sea, which is much more energy-efficient. The rest is air-freighted in order to meet out-of-season demand for things like blueberries and apricots. These products don't displace UK production, but supplement the local demand.

The use of fossil fuels in the production, packaging and transportation of a product contributes heavily to its carbon footprint. So while it may appear that a lorry-load of apples grown in the UK will have a smaller carbon footprint than apples imported from NZ, the reality is quite different. Eighty-two per cent of vehicle kilometres associated with transporting food consumed in the UK are generated within the UK itself, for example by big freight lorries burning fossil fuels carrying food round the M25; or going to and from warehouses in the middle of nowhere.

The July 2006 Lincoln Report (from Lincoln University in NZ) has shown that even taking into account the environmental cost of transporting goods to the UK, NZ uses considerably less energy than the UK in the production of sheep meat (NZ is four times as efficient), dairy (NZ is twice as efficient), and apples.

A new report from Lincoln published in July looks at the CO2, methane and nitrous oxide emissions associated with NZ and UK dairy production. This provides a more in-depth picture of the environmental footprint of dairy production, and is more precise than looking at the carbon footprint alone. The report shows that, even after taking into account the energy used to ship dairy products to the UK, the NZ dairy sector generates around three-quarters of the greenhouse gas emissions (per kilo of milk solids) produced by UK producers.

Then take the humble onion. In order for the UK to keep the domestic market supplied year round without importing, it would need to grow huge acreages of them (requiring vast tracts of land that just don't exist) and then keep them in chillers for up to nine months (powered by electricity produced mostly from the burning of fossil fuels). Of course, we could all simply stop using onions for three or four months instead, but that's not really a viable option.

Considering the recent summer floods, the crops they destroyed and the number of animals lost in recent times to BSE, foot-and-mouth and bird flu, Britain is in even less of a position to rely solely on domestic food production and will have to turn to imported produce to keep itself fed this year. Globally, a macabre combination of floods and droughts, pests and viruses are rearranging our ability to produce a reliable supply of food.

In NZ, 60 to 70 per cent of electricity is produced by pollutionfree hydro-power schemes, with only around 23 to 30 per cent coming from coal or gas. According to, all renewable sources provided only 4.22 per cent of the UK's electricity in 2005. NZ's produce is then loaded on to container ships, the most efficient mode of transportation. According to data from the UK Department for Transport, sea-freight emissions are less than one-eightieth of those associated with air transport. Ships also do not require the building of motorways and other key infrastructure, thereby saving vast resources and preventing the destruction of oxygen-producing, and CO2 absorbing, vegetation. Also, road transport creates 7.6 times the emissions of sea freight and is 37.5 times more likely to result in spills.

So, assuming I've partially won you over regarding the realities of food miles, greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprints, the next issue has to be the continuing support of the developing world. If we decide to stop buying food produced offshore, we have to consider the very real consequences of such a decision. The thought of entire countries going down the gurgler because we no longer want to buy their coffee, tea, limes, pineapples, cloves and mangoes is a terrifying one. I'm all for using British strawberries when they're in season, but I have absolutely no problem with drinking coffee from Colombia or tea from India. It seems no one else does either, even those people shopping at aforementioned farmers' markets – including the farmers.

It is also infuriating to hear that the Soil Association is thinking of removing the term "organic" from any organic foods flown into Britain. Perhaps we should also stop calling Argentinean beef "beef", purely because it's imported. At some point this subtle manipulation of the English language, used purely in order to support a biased, protectionist and perhaps slightly xenophobic agenda, really has to stop. Organic has a meaning, defined before air travel (let alone air freight) existed, and air miles travelled shouldn't figure in that description. It has to be understood that the bulk of African organic farmers, mostly using renewable energy, will be disastrously affected by any restrictions placed on the export of their produce.

As it is, the World Bank estimates that the average Briton produces 30 times more carbon than a Kenyan. And Blue Skies (a community-spirited African and South American fruit exporter) states that while the average Ghanaian may produce 350kg of carbon emissions per year, the average Briton will produce 10 tons. So is it really fair for these same Britons, who clearly produce far more greenhouse gases than the farmers, to dictate who is more green? Blue Skies' organic farmers in Ghana should instead be commended for their approach to food production: no tractors, no roads and no chemicals – almost no carbon footprint for their produce.

According to Blue Skies, air-freighted fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables from the whole of sub-Saharan Africa account for less than 0.1 per cent of total UK carbon emissions. So, bear in mind where that next bunch of flowers you buy comes from. Producing a rose in Kenya (grown outside, manually harvested, and with no heating required), then flying it to the UK will use less than one-fifth of the energy required to produce and import it from the Netherlands, where they're mostly grown inside under heat-lamps.

Countries around the world from Argentina to Japan and Hong Kong are able to freight ship-loads of produce to the UK partly because they are likely also in turn importing British (and other foreign) produce such as Crabtree and Evelyn bath salts, Scotch whisky, Duchy Originals biscuits, Highland shortbread and Maldon sea salt. It would be financially absurd for Britain to stop exporting its produce, just as it would be absurd if it were to stop importing foreign produce. Trade keeps the world alive.

The most enduring image I have of the dilemma for the thinking liberal greenie (of which I have to say I am one) was of recently shopping in the magnificently over-the-top Whole Foods Market in Kensington. I came out of the shop, having witnessed an organic couple loading up their trolley. A few minutes later they drove past me in a Jeep Cherokee. I wondered if they were bothered by the fact they were driving an imported vehicle, or the fact that it probably burnt more fuel per kg getting their mixed salad home than it does to fly in Ghanaian sugarloaf pineapples at the height of their ripeness. I have a feeling they weren't.

CO2 emissions and food

By Alastair Plumb

* The production of British lamb produces 2,850kg of CO2 per ton. New Zealand lamb shipped to Britain produces 690.

* Air-freighted food accounts for 0.1 per cent of food miles, but produces 13 per cent of CO2 emissions from food transport

* Sea-freight emissions are less that one-eightieth of those produced by air-freight. Road transport creates 7.6 times more emissions than sea freight does.

* A cheeseburger costs between 3.6 to 6.1kg of CO2 equivalent. According to statistics from Fast Food Nation, the average American will eat three cheeseburgers a week – producing up to 915kg of greenhouse gases a year.

* Food and drink only accounts for 5 per cent of the average person's carbon footprint, compared to 19 per cent from transport, and 9 per cent from power used in the home.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments