What Are Food Miles?

Listen to any discussion about supermarkets, food and the benefits of locally sourced produce and it won’t be long before you hear the words “food miles.” Although the expression was first coined back in the 1990s, over recent years those two words have really passed into the public consciousness and today, it seems, everyone is talking about them – but why, and what exactly are “food miles” anyway?

A Simple Idea

The idea behind the whole food miles thing is a very simple one – and the clue is, obviously, in the name; it is a way of expressing just how far the food we eat travels from the farm where it is first produced, before it ends up on our tables. In practice, however, it is not necessarily a straightforward thing to work out, since the journey from field to plate is not always a direct one. As a result, this distance may also include any number of other trips along the way, from farm to processor, from one processor to another, from processors to distribution centres, from there to the retailer and then finally to our homes. Worst of all, some of the journeys are very long indeed; in the fishing industry, for instance, there are tales of some of the fish caught in the North Sea travelling as far as China for processing, before making its way back to European tables.

Cutting the Carbon Cost

Transporting food around the UK represents nearly 25 per cent of all the trips made by heavy goods vehicles on the country’s roads, according to DEFRA, and adds up to around a staggering 20 billion miles a year. That’s an awful lot of fuel – and an equally big amount of carbon.

Just moving food up and down the country already represents huge distances travelled, but add all that’s involved in bringing much of it into the UK by air, rail or ship in the first place, and it quickly becomes very clear that what we eat, eats up a lot of resources before ever we get our teeth anywhere near it. Cut the food miles, cut the carbon – or so the thinking goes; but is it really that simple?

Too Simple?

There are many who would say no – not because they don’t care about the plight of the planet, but because they feel that there are just too many other factors that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to food.

For one thing, avoiding food produced in developing countries a long way away can have a catastrophic effect on the local economy and the people who may rely on export horticulture for their livelihoods. In some cases, it might even drive local farmers back to unsustainable agriculture methods to make ends meet, if their export market dwindles.

It is also important to think about the wider carbon costs involved in food production; locally produced food, it seems, may not automatically have the edge. A DEFRA study, for instance, concluded that it was less environmentally friendly to grow tomatoes in the UK than to import them from Spain, because heating British greenhouses used more energy than the transport. There are other examples too, which show that when you factor in things such as energy usage, fertilisers, feed and pesticides, the embodied energy balance does not always favour local produce.

It is a complex issue and perhaps looking at food just in terms of how far it has travelled risks missing a lot of other equally important things along the way; it’s a good idea, but some people ask if it runs the danger of being just a bit too simple.

The Value of Food Miles

So where does all this leave the whole food miles idea? Is it a valuable guide to environmental impact, or an overly simplistic example of sound-bite science? The honest answer is that it’s probably a bit of both; it mostly depends how you look at things. It is undoubtedly a good way to get people thinking about the whole idea of how and where our food is produced, and as a factor in the wider decision-making process over what you chose to buy and eat, “food miles” certainly have a part to play – but only a part. Clearly, there are other ethical and environmental concerns to consider too.

One of the hardest things that anyone who really cares about the planet has to realise is that the world isn’t a simple place – it’s really very complicated – and that can often make it very difficult to know for sure what to do for the best. The bottom line is, there are times when being eco-friendly isn’t easy, but it’s still worth trying, all the same!