Food miles

Our local grocery store owner has begun to put a label on each of the fresh products that she sells to show its ‘food miles’: the distance that each product has travelled between the farm and the shop.

Although popular, it is debatable whether buying locally produced food actually helps the environment.  As can be seen from this chart published last week by Our World in Data, transport (in red on each bar) only accounts for a small part of the total GHG emissions in the food supply chain. If you want to help the environment, what you eat is far more important than the distance it has travelled.

For example, a Defra study in the UK estimated the CO2 emissions of tomatoes produced in Spain and shipped to the UK at 630 kg per tonne compared with 2,394 kg per tonne for tomatoes produced in the UK. Tomatoes in Spain are grown unheated under plastic while tomatoes in the UK are usually grown in heated greenhouses.

A later study found that New Zealand lamb imported into the UK had a smaller environmental footprint than home produced lamb.

DEFRA has also looked at the road transport part of the food supply chain in the UK. They found that half of the vehicle kilometres, when measured in terms of the amount transported per kilometres, were driving the commodity from the store to the home. In other words, the best way to reduce your food miles is to walk, cycle or take the bus to the supermarket to do your shopping—and leave the car at home.

But what about bulk commodities? We as traders are often criticised for moving huge tonnages of grain (or sugar in my case) over vast distances. Surely it would be more environmentally friendly to grow the crops locally?

As most bulk commodities are transported by ship, the GHG emissions are really quite insignificant. Global shipping accounts for around 2 percent of total GHG emissions, but that includes minerals as well as finished industrial products such as cars and machinery. The total world trade in iron ore is about 1.4 billion tonnes compared to wheat, for example, at around 100 million tonnes.

A study for Canada, a major sugar importer, found that sugar accounted for about 13 percent of the country’s total food imports by weight and about 21 percent of the tonnes per kilometre (because it mainly comes from Central and South America). However, because it is shipped to Canada in big cargo vessels and transported internally by rail, sugar only accounted for 2 percent of the country’s farm to store CO2 emissions.

The concept of shopping locally and counting food miles to help the environment has therefore been largely discredited. So why then has our local shop made the move to label each of their products with the kilometres it has travelled?

I asked the owner that question and she told me that consumers want to do something positive for the environment, and they believe that shopping local does help. More importantly, she added, her customers like to feel that they are supporting local farming communities.

“Shouldn’t we also be supporting farming communities in the developing world?” I asked her. She shrugged and moved on to the next customer.

In frustration I walked down the street to the local MIGROS supermarket where I found that the vegetables and fruit pre-packaged in plastic were cheaper by the kilo than the vegetables and fruit that were displayed in bulk. Packing vegetables in plastic reduces food waste because they are handled less. This waste has an economic and environmental cost that is greater than the plastic packaging.

Perhaps we shouldn’t ditch the cling film after all!

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