Food miles

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Food miles is a term which refers to the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer. It is one dimension used in assessing the environmental impact of food. The concept of food miles originated in 1990 in the United Kingdom. It was conceived by Andrea Paxton, who wrote a research paper that discussed the fact that food miles are the distance that food travels from the farm it is produced on to the kitchen in which it is being consumed (Iles, 2005, p.163). Engelhaupt (2008) states, that “food miles is the distance food travels from farm to plate, are a simple way to gauge food’s impact on climate change” (p. 3482). Food travels between 1,500 to 2,500 miles (4,000 km) every time that it is delivered to the consumer. The travel of products from the farms to the consumers is 25 percent farther now than it was in 1980 (“Counting our food miles,” 2007). Some scholars believe that the pollution is created due to the globalization of trade overseas; the focus of food supply bases into fewer, larger supplies; the drastic change in the delivery pattern; increase in processing and packaging foods; and making fewer trips to the supermarket. Others state that the GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions are created by the production phases which create 83 percent, 8.1 tons of CO2 foot printing or food miles. (Engelhaupt, E., 2008). The goal of the Environmental Protection Agencies is to make people aware of the environment impacts of food miles and show the pollution percentage and the energy used to transport food over long distances, at this time there are researchers that are working to provide the public with more information.


[edit] Overview

The concept of food miles is part of a broader issue of sustainability which deals with a large range of environmental issues, including local food. The term was coined by Tim Lang (now Professor of Food Policy, City University, London) who says: "The point was to highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production to consumers in a simple way, one which had objective reality but also connotations." [1] However, it has increasingly come under attack as an ineffective means of finding the true environmental impact.[2]

A DEFRA report in 2005 undertaken by researchers at AEA Technology Environment, entitled The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development, included findings that "the direct environmental, social and economic costs of food transport are over £9 billion each year, and are dominated by congestion."

Recent findings indicate that it is not only how far the food has traveled but the method of travel that is important to consider. The positive environmental effects of specialist organic farming may be offset by increased transportation, unless it is produced by local farms. But even then the logistics and effects on other local traffic may play a big role.[citation needed] Also, many trips by personal cars to shopping centers would have a negative environmental impact compared to a few truck loads to neighborhood stores that can be easily accessed by walking or cycling.

[edit] Food miles in business

Business leaders have adopted food miles as a model for understanding inefficiency in a food supply chain. Wal-Mart, famously focused on efficiency, was an early adopter of food miles as a profit-maximizing strategy. More recently, Wal-Mart has embraced the environmental benefits of supply chain efficiency as well. In 2006, Wal-Mart, CEO, Lee Scott said, "The benefits of the strategy are undeniable, whether you look through the lens of greenhouse gas reduction or the lens of cost savings. What has become so obvious is that 'a green strategy' provides better value for our customers".[3] Wal-Mart has since made a series of environmental commitments that suggest the company is looking more holistically at supply chain sustainability, such as restricting seafood suppliers to fisheries independently certified as sustainable, a practice that may increase food miles.[3] Still it is undeniable that Wal-Mart's strategy of using supply chains from as far away as China exorbitantly increases greenhouse emissions. They are often criticized for "green washing" and only adopting large-scale green tactics, which make them appear earth-friendly but actually have little positive environmental impact.[citation needed]

Some other alternatives for reducing food miles are to create Co-op grocery stores. A Co-op is a small business strictly owned and managed by its members. The way that this works is that people come together, they create equity and then they purchase their products. They grow organic food and their food miles are drastically reduced. “Choosing to buy organic has value, the hidden costs of shopping increase substantially when road miles are factored in”(Holt and Watson, 2008, p. 321). The first co-op was created in 1844 in England with twenty-eight people. They started out by selling just sugar, flour, butter and oatmeal. Today there are over 47,000 coop corporations in the United States alone. Not only are Co-op markets reducing the food miles, but they are also providing the consumers with healthy food, organic food. The facts and figures for 2005 state that organic foods contains higher levels of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and chromium; and 15 percent lower levels of nitrates (Siner, 1996).

[edit] Food mile calculation problems

The calculation of food miles ignores questions of scale. Consider the following simplistic example: a small family farm produces 10 tons of produce, but has a small truck with capacity for only 1 ton. If the farm is located 100 miles (160 km) away from market, each piece of produce only travels 100 "food miles"; however, 10 trips are required to bring that produce to market. Now consider a farm located 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away but with a 10-ton truck. That farm's produce would travel 1000 "food miles" while consuming a slightly higher amount of energy (as a bigger truck needs less fuel per unit of mass transported).[citation needed].

Furthermore, the mode of transportation is not included. Ships are much more effective than trucks, cars or planes. However there is still a debate on whether it is more environmentally friendly to use trucks or planes for long distance shipping. Some believe that trucks give off only 30% of the carbon emissions that planes do (Edward-Jones, 2008, p.267). Therefore there is a need when reporting food miles to standardize by some quantity measure. Frozen and fresh food use much more energy to transport. Red meat has an average total distance of 20, 400 km, which includes the grain used to feed the cows, with a shipping distance of around 1,800 km, which is only about 9% of the total distance. Beverages are the product with the least average shipping distance with around 330 km, but including all production there is around 1,200 km of shipments to make the beverage. Of the total distance for fruits and vegetables, 50% of the distance is shipping (Weber, 2008, p.3511). Packaging and preparation can also add or remove weight to the food transported, so the same quantity of food can require different quantities of energy depending on where the packaging and preparation is done. For example, orange juice is often transported in concentrated form, and only diluted and put in bottles near the customers. A more relevant indicator would be the "average number of food miles per ton" or per other unit of measure for a certain shipment. A better all round indicator, which would address some of the problems below, also, would be a measure of total embodied energy per ton.

One way to be able to track food miles would be by the creation of food labels. Countries such as Sweden, the U.K. and Canada are creating their own labels that are making people more aware of food miles. Sweden’s labels are called “climate friendly” and with the use of these labels “Sweden will be able to choose food according to the impact its production and transportation methods have on the climate (“Counting our food miles,” 2007, p. 33). The United Kingdom uses “carbon labels” created by Tesco. In Canada they are not only creating food labels, but also developing a system in which they can track farmers and processors and then link them to the purchasers. They tested their carbon labels on products such as Walkers crisp and Cadburys chocolates. What they did was create labels that had small C’s with a downward arrow that showed the grams of carbon dioxide created for the production (McKei, 2008). McKie (2008) results showed that “packets of Walker's Ready Salted and Salt and Vinegar crisps each generate 75g of carbon, while the cheese and onion variety produced only 74g” (para. 19). As one can see, it is easier to calculate the carbon dioxide for a product with fewer toppings, then one such as a pizza or spaghetti. Due to the large numbers the scientists are trying to reduce food miles.

[edit] A non-holistic approach

Critics of food miles point out that transport is only one component of the total environmental impact of food production and consumption. In fact, any environmental assessment of food that consumers buy needs to take into account how the food has been produced and what energy is used in its production. A recent DEFRA case study indicated that tomatoes grown in Spain and transported to the United Kingdom may have a lower carbon footprint in terms of energy efficiency than tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses the United Kingdom.[4]

A 2006 research report from Lincoln University, New Zealand counters claims about food miles by comparing total energy used in food production in Europe and New Zealand, taking into account energy used to ship the food to Europe for consumers.[5][6] The report states, "New Zealand has greater production efficiency in many food commodities compared to the UK. For example New Zealand agriculture tends to apply fewer fertilizers (which require large amounts of energy to produce and cause significant CO2 emissions) and animals are able to graze year round outside eating grass instead of large quantities of brought-in feed such as concentrates. In the case of dairy and sheep meat production NZ is by far more energy efficient, even including the transport cost, than the UK, twice as efficient in the case of dairy, and four times as efficient in case of sheep meat. In the case of apples, NZ is more energy-efficient even though the energy embodied in capital items and other inputs data was not available for the UK."

Studies of the total carbon footprint of food production in the US have shown transportation to be of minor importance, compared to the carbon emissions resulting from pesticide and fertilizer production, and the fuel required by farm and food processing equipment[7].

A commonly ignored element is the local loop. The act of driving further to a more "right-on" food source increases the total carbon footprint. A shopper may buy say 5 kg of meat and use about a gallon to get it. That piece of meat could have gone over 60,000 miles (97,000 km) by road (40tonner at 8mpg) to require the same carbon in transportation. However, this is an extreme scenario, in which a consumer burns a gallon of gasoline (30 or 40 miles (64 km) of travel) to buy a single food item, 5 kg of meat. While extreme consumer behaviors can certainly cancel any environmental benefit arising from any food-buying choice, it is a different question whether consumer behaviors do so in practice.

[edit] Other arguments that buying food based on food miles can cause net harm to the environment

An August 6, 2007 article in The New York Times gave examples of how eating locally grown food sometimes causes an increase, instead of a decrease, in the carbon footprint. As one example, the article stated, "... lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles (18,000 km) by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard."[8]

According to a study by engineers Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University, of all the greenhouse gases emitted by the food industry, only 4% comes from transporting the food from producers to retailers. The study also concluded that adopting a vegetarian diet, even if the vegetarian food is transported over very long distances, does far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, than does eating a locally grown diet.[9]

[edit] References

  1. ^ Tim Lang (2006). ‘locale / global (food miles)’, Slow Food (Bra, Cuneo Italy), 19, May 2006, p.94-97
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Al Gore takes his green message to Wal-Mart headquarters | By Amanda Griscom Little | Grist | Muckraker | 19 Jul 2006
  4. ^ "Comparative life-cycle assessment of food commodities procured for UK consumption through a diversity of supply chains. 19 March 2003"
  5. ^ "Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry"
  6. ^ "Food that travels well" New York Times Aug. 6 2007
  7. ^ "Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States Environ. Sci. Technol., 2008, 42 (10), pp 3508–3513"
  8. ^ Food That Travels Well, The New York Times, August 6, 2007
  9. ^ Food miles are less important to environment than food choices, study concludes, Jane Liaw, special to June 2, 2008
  • Edwards-Jones, G., Milà i Canals, L., Hounsome, N., Truninger, M., Koerber, G., Hounsome, B., et al. (2008). Testing the assertion that ‘local food is best’: the challenges of an evidence-based approach. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 19(5), 265-274.
  • Waye, V. (2008). Carbon Footprints, Food Miles and the Australian Wine Industry. Melbourne Journal of International Law, 9, 271-300.
  • Weber, C., & Matthews, H. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology, 42(10), 3508-3513.
  • Iles, A. (2005). Learning in sustainable agriculture: Food miles and missing objects. Environmental Values, 14, 163-83.
  • Engelhaupt, E. (2008). Do food miles matter? Environmental Science & Technology, 42, 3482.
  • McKei, R. (2008). How the myth of food miles hurts the planet. Retrieved March 23, 2008, from
  • Holt, D., & Watson, A. (2008). Exploring the dilemma of local sourcing versus international development –the case of the Flower Industry. Business Strategy and the Environment, 17, 318-329.
  • Pierre Desrochers & Hiroko Shimizu. "Yes We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the Food Mile Perspective." Mercatus Policy Series, Policy Primer No. 8, October 2008.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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