Food miles: Re-opening a seasoned debate

Food miles: Re-opening a seasoned debate

The perceived wisdom that importing food creates significant CO2 emissions – while sourcing local and seasonal food is more environmentally sustainable – is currently undergoing scrutiny at many levels. Katharine Earley explores the key issues at the heart of the longstanding ‘food miles’ debate. This post includes commentary from Mark Holmes, principal sustainability consultant at ADAS, and local food experts Peter Lefort of Community Action Groups and Julian Cottee of Oxford-based social food enterprise Cultivate.

I read recently that just 2-3% of the global carbon footprint of an average food product is related to transport, according to analysis from Unilever. This is an interesting statistic, given the commonly held perception that food miles are detrimental to the environment. As the world’s population rockets towards 9bn in 2050, many wonder whether sourcing local and seasonal food could provide an answer to growing concerns around food security. However, the more I understand from both sustainability experts and local food pioneers, the more I see that the situation is far from clear cut.

While consumers typically focus on the carbon footprint of the transport element of food supply, the most carbon-heavy activities often occur during the growing phase. These include fertiliser usage and livestock emissions. Additionally, generating carbon emissions is not the only environmental impact of the food supply chain. There are many more considerations at stake, including water use, fossil fuel and mineral depletion, acidification, water pollution and ecotoxicity caused by pesticide use.

Similar misconceptions surround the idea of local food – just because food is produced locally doesn’t mean that it’s produced in an ecologically sound or responsible way. Leading manufacturers often use state-of-the-art food production facilities and growing techniques overseas, whereas a small local farm may not have access to this level of technology or expertise.

Unpicking the myth

“Food miles is a very simple concept that’s become embedded in people’s minds, however, the issue is not at all black and white,” Mark Holmes of ADAS told me. “It’s important to strike a balance between importing responsibly sourced food and growing food locally for local consumption.”

The identification of food as ‘in season’ is – in isolation – not a good blanket criterion for environmentally sustainable food purchasing, a recent ADAS paper revealed. The study found that no single ‘in season’ definition, for UK or overseas production, would consistently lead to lower environmental impacts across different products, as there are trade-offs between the different types of environmental impact. The paper, entitled ‘Does consuming seasonal foods benefit the environment?’ was published in a recent British Nutrition Foundation Nutrition Bulletin.

Assessing the environmental impact of seasonal produce on a case by case basis could therefore be the best way forward, despite the challenges it would present, the report suggests. In terms of local food production, growing the same crop in different areas creates different environmental impacts according to local conditions and availability of resources such as water.

And just what is seasonal food?

There’s a good deal of debate surrounding the definition of seasonal food. It can be defined as seasonal food produced anywhere in the world where the food is ‘in season’, or seasonal food that’s produced locally and consumed in the same country. The term ‘seasonal’ is also used to apply to festive food such as Christmas products! The ADAS paper found that regardless of the definition, there’s still no clear way to establish which foods produce a lower environmental impact.

Progressive food production techniques

In terms of environmental sustainability, there’s an argument for food to be produced wherever it can be produced most efficiently, using the best available techniques and equipment available to produce a maximum yield while optimising resources and energy usage (and remembering that CO2 emissions vary by product).

“Increasingly, food manufacturers are focusing on how best to optimise efficiency within overseas supply chains, in order to address responsible growing, food security and sustainability issues, including commercial sustainability,” continues Holmes. “Given the risk that some crops may not eventually grow in certain parts of the world due to water scarcity, producers are also asking – where might production migrate to next?”

Global farm assurance standards regulating food production do exist of course, such as the LEAF and Red Tractor standards, although these are not obligatory, as far as I know. These are also generally more accessible to larger manufacturers and retailers, I would imagine.

The value of local food

Speaking to local food groups, it’s clear that growing food locally is about a lot more than cutting food miles. Among the benefits highlighted are reducing food and packaging waste, and importantly, promoting social and economic sustainability at a local level.

Referring to the 2011 ‘Global Food Losses and Food Waste’ report released at last year’s Save Food Congress, Peter Lefort explains that approximately a third of all food produced globally is wasted, which amounts to 1.3bn tonnes per year. He highlights that local food promotes resilience at a local level, whereby food is distributed more effectively, producing less waste.

Lefort also voices concern over the trend whereby land is purchased in developing countries to meet demand for food in the developed world, a scenario in which the ‘local’ community in the source country does not benefit from the food being produced on its doorstep. It is really quite eye-opening when you consider that 80% of the world’s resources are used by 16% of its population.

Cultivate’s director Julian Cottee echoes Mark Holmes’ point that large scale producers can often operate more efficiently than small scale local producers, from a carbon footprint point of view. However, he believes that consumers are more likely to scrutinise local producers, thereby pressing them to operate more responsibly and address their environmental impacts.

“Local food networks cut down on a great deal more than direct CO2emissions,” Cottee told me. “They also address the important issue of reducing the current volume of rotting food and packaging. There’s usually far less manufacturing and processing involved in producing local food, it doesn’t require a carbon-heavy retail store and consumers often travel shorter distances to do their shopping.”

“Finally, local food creates a beneficial impact on the local economy, including the creation of meaningful jobs, the strengthening of communities and the added cultural value of knowing about and eating together our seasonal regional foods,” Cottee concludes.

Holmes agrees that local food offers social and economic benefits to the community, but adds that buying local produce is not always accessible to all (and is not widely stocked by supermarkets), as the ‘added value’ delivered by the provenance of the food often pushes the price up, making local food more affordable to the more affluent in society.

Raising consumer awareness

Achieving greater awareness and knowledge of local and seasonal foods among consumers is a fundamental part of the education process. Any communication of the benefits of seasonal foods would need to be kept simple, using positive language and avoiding any moralising statements.

Retailers and manufacturers face a steep challenge in terms of how much information can be included on a label. Offering people the option to link to information via a QR code may help to some extent. However, Holmes suggests that it may be more efficient for supermarkets and food manufacturers to perform a comprehensive risk assessment at the outset when considering food procurement strategies, so the onus is taken away from the consumer.

Could we really imagine not eating bananas?

Given that supermarket food is relatively cheap, and the majority of consumers are primarily motivated by price when making purchasing decisions (followed by quality, then environmental concerns), would consumers really be prepared to move away from the ‘status quo’ of buying almost any fruit or vegetable at any time of year? The thought of transferring to a more seasonal model would currently be unthinkable for most retailers. After all, could we imagine not being able to eat bananas? And what would consumers fill this gap with – could this create a detrimental impact of another kind?

Creating change

“Within the existing food system, the power to create significant change with regard to seasonal food availability lies principally with major supermarkets, but ultimately it’s the consumer who decides whether they want to eat strawberries 365 days a year,” concludes Holmes. “We are focused on improving decision-making on issues relating to responsible food production as well as advising retailers on sustainable sourcing strategies. In this way, we aim to raise the bar for production standards in all supply chains.”

Finally, it seems that the question of how sustainable it is to produce food abroad or locally depends on your definition of sustainability – whether it’s environmental, social or economic sustainability. There’s a lot to be said for local food in terms of delivering value to the local community, and when I consider my own forlorn crop of tomatoes this year, I’m glad that local food groups are actively providing a solution for people who like the idea of fresh, locally grown fruit and veg. I’m also aware that as with all sustainability conundrums, the challenge of minimising the environmental impacts of the food supply chain means tackling multiple interlinked issues at once, and that digging below the surface reveals a deeper layer of complexity that will take time and determination to resolve.

This article was published on the 2degrees network website.