Food Miles – An Overview

Nowadays you can’t move for people telling how to be more environmentally friendly- whether its shops encouraging you to reuse your plastic bags or your local council dropping leaflets about the importance of recycling. One thing that has become more prevalent is our carbon footprint, and from that, our food miles. Some people don’t stop to think about the journey a bag of apples has taken to appear on a supermarket shelf, but for others counting food miles is just as important as counting the pennies.

food milesWhat Are Food Miles?

Food miles refers the distance your food travels between its origin of growth and your kitchen cupboards; while many people will look at the labels to see how far a product has travelled to get to the supermarket, they don’t then take into account the car journey the product makes to their house, which also adds to the total food miles.

According to Helena Stratford’s article on, 95% of our fruit comes from abroad, 50% of our vegetables are imported, and since 1992 the amount of food transported by plane has risen by 140%.

How to Solve the Problem- Buy Locally?

supermarketThe most obvious solution to reducing our food miles is to buy locally – while the use of butchers and greengrocers diminished somewhat when supermarkets began offering the convenience of everything under one roof, as we’re becoming more environmentally aware, people are looking for alternative sources for their fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.

Of course for some people (due to geography or lifestyle) it may not be quite so simple, so Stratford does offer some helpful advice- leaving the car at home being the obvious one- but she also suggests if you do have to use a car, planning one big shop to reduce your carbon footprint. This also will have further advantages as you can plan your meals for the week ahead, and potentially save yourself some money if you know what you’ll need ahead of time.

Stratford’s other pointers include buying food with as little packaging as possible – and if the packaging can be recycled even better – and to buy either fair trade or organic produce.

Are Food Miles Only Half the Story?

Lindsay Wilson’s article on points out that while making an effort to reduce our food miles will help to reduce carbon emissions, it isn’t quite that simple; “Tackling [food miles] will support local food, but won’t always cut carbon emissions,” she writes.

In fact, she points out that cutting food miles can actually increase your food’s carbon footprint. “The most important thing to remember about food miles is that they are only part of the bigger food emissions story.  A person’s foodprint is actually dominated by production emissions, and food transport makes up just a tenth of food emissions up to the point of sale,” Wilson writes.

So, What Else Can We Do?

tomatoesAlongside buying locally, the key to really driving down the carbon emissions linked with our food is to buy in season. Wilson uses the example of the tomato which, despite not always being in season, is eaten all year round in Europe, Canada and the northern states of the US; “Winter tomatoes in these places are either hot housed locally, using significant amounts of energy, or imported from warmer climates like Spain or Mexico.”

Wilson references a paper by Annika Carlsson from 1998 about tomatoes in Sweden, comparing the footprints of those tomatoes produced in Sweden to those imported from Spain. Despite the travelling involved, the tomatoes grown in Spain had a much smaller footprint (0.8 kg CO2e/kg) than those produced in Sweden (3.9 kg CO2e/kg) purely because of the amount of energy needed to make the Swedish tomatoes grow out of season.

However, Wilson does acknowledge that in this day and age when we have greater access to renewable energy sources, there will be some exceptions to the rule.

The Way Forward – Seasonal AND Local

The best way to help reduce the carbon emissions associated with our food certainly seems to be sourcing food that is both locally and seasonally grown. “By eating food that is both in season and local you can be more certain that both production emissions and transport emissions are limited,” says Wilson.

Of course, one way to be in complete control of your food’s carbon footprint is to grow your own, which Wilson states will almost definitely taste better; “Not only are many imported varieties a bit bland to begin with, but they suffer from time in storage, being refrigerated and forced ripening.”

Alongside this, you can make a conscious effect not to waste the food you buy- planning ahead is a great way of saving yourself time and money when it comes to meals, and if you can use locally and seasonally grown produce that’s even better.


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