How far has your food travelled to get to your kitchen? That journey – the distance between where something is grown to where it’s eaten – is what we mean when we talk about ‘food miles’.
Think about home-grown herbs or local farmers’ market veggies. They won’t clock up many food miles. But if you can’t resist out-of-season strawberries on your morning yogurt, that will mean a much longer trip.
Are food miles bad for the environment?
If your ingredients have come a long way, they may have a heavy carbon footprint.
That’s especially likely if they arrived by air – due to the high climate impact of planes. After all, flying in food typically creates around 10 times more carbon emissions than road transport and around 50 times more than shipping.
While airfreight is only widely used for high-value, perishable products, like out-of-season berries, these products account for around 11 per cent of the UK’s food-transport emissions.
And that’s only part of the story. Once imported food gets to the UK, there are more miles ahead.
DEFRA estimates that moving food is responsible for 25 per cent of all miles covered by heavy goods traffic in the UK. Transporting food within, to and around the UK produces 19 million tonnes of CO2 annually – equivalent to around 5.5 million typical cars.
Finally, there’s the distance that we travel to buy our food.
For example, if you regularly drive to large, out-of-town supermarkets, the miles add up. In fact, each of us travels around 135 miles a year in the car to do our food shopping. (Given that over 50 per cent of the population doesn’t own a car, it’s closer to 270 miles.)
More than miles
So much travelling doesn’t sound great for the planet – but it’s not quite this straightforward.
That’s because food miles only tell you one thing: distance. And, if you’re trying to shop as sustainably as possible, there are lots of others things that can affect a product’s carbon footprint.
This can result in some rather strange-sounding scenarios:
For example, UK tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses may actually have a higher carbon footprint than tomatoes imported from hotter countries – even including the extra transport.
What’s more, the biggest portion of any food’s environmental impact still comes from production, not transport. Take beef, for instance. Even produced locally, it’s likely to have a large environmental footprint due to the incredible levels of methane that cows produce.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that some experts are now questioning if the term ‘food miles’ is more of a distraction than anything.
‘The concept of food miles is unhelpful and stupid,’ says Dr Adrian Williams, of the National Resources Management Centre at Cranfield University, ‘it doesn't tell you anything except the distance travelled’.
Where can I find a product’s food miles?
Unless you're buying from a local farmer’s market (or the producer chooses to tell you), it’s impossible to know how far your food has travelled. UK law requires meat, fish and seafood labels to show their country of origin but that doesn’t tell you how it was imported or where else it’s been.
Then again – given that food miles are only part of an ingredient's sustainability story – this is perhaps no bad thing.
It would be more useful to have a label that shows a product’s total carbon footprint – and this could soon become a reality.
Back in 2007, the UK’s largest retailer Tesco announced grand plans to label all its products with their respective carbon footprint – promising ‘a revolution in green consumption’. But five years later, the supermarket dropped the plan – blaming the huge amount of work involved (‘months of research’ for every single product) and others for failing to follow its lead.
The good news it that carbon labels could be making a comeback.
In 2020, Quorn will become the first major brand to introduce carbon labelling on its products. The first labels will start appearing on products from June 2020, and its ‘farm to shop’ carbon footprint data, certified by the Carbon Trust, is already available online for the brand’s 30 best-selling products.
You can also find out the climate impact of 34 popular foods and drink with this interactive environmental impact calculator, launched by the BBC in August 2019.
What can I do right now?
If you want to shop locally, the extreme option would be to stop eating anything that we can’t rear or grow on our own shores.
But it’s worth noting that – if we stopped importing food altogether – we’d take away a valuable source of income from communities all over the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, around 1.5 million people depend on exporting food to the UK. And ending this trade relationship would only reduce UK total greenhouse gas emissions by less than 0.1 per cent. Not much of a pay-off for sacrificing your morning coffee.
Instead, simply cutting down on the meat and dairy in your diet could be a good place to start according to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who report that the West’s consumption of these is fuelling climate change.
It’s also worth buying seasonal fruit and veg from the UK where it’s available, suggests the WWF’s Duncan Williamson. ‘Food grown under ‘natural sunlight’ is an efficient use of resources,’ he says.
‘By supporting local producers, buying from reputable certified sources, like Fairtrade or MSC, preparing more food ourselves, moving to a sustainable diet, like the Livewell plate, and wasting less food, we can create a sustainable food system that benefits everyone.’
More on sustainability
Paul Allen is a former BBC environmental editor and a director at Lark. Find him on Twitter @larkingly