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Climate Change, Food, Organic Food, Transport

The Myth of Food Miles

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Are you a locavore? Eating locally-sourced food is fast becoming the new food trend in Australia, particularly as we swelter in the Southern states from the record temperatures, or clean up after yet another flood in Queensland and Northern NSW. Climate Change is touted as the issue of this century, and everyday consumers are doing their part to help the cause, by buying only locally-sourced food products that don’t have to travel far from farm-to-fork.

This is a great idea for our local economies, particularly when Australia produces far more food than we can possibly consume ourselves, but is the idea of ‘food miles’ and eating locally really as good for the environment as locavore advocates might suggest?

The idea of food miles has been around for nearly two decades now, and it proposes that the further a foodstuff has to travel from farm to fork, the worse for the environment that product is (due to the carbon emissions entailed in transport). However, research has indicated that this idea is much more simplistic than we would like to believe, and a more holistic approach should be taken in order to fully evaluate the carbon emissions involved in each product’s life cycle.

To begin with, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the transport of food represents only a small percentage of total emissions from the food industry. One estimate from the UK suggests that food transport accounts for around 11% of GHG emissions, whereas the production process contributes a whopping 83%.[1] A 2010 study found that the difference between the emissions associated with a tomato sourced from a ‘local’ greenhouse facility in Canada and one that was grown in a field 2400 miles away was nearly 7 times greater in the greenhouse grown tomato.[2]

Food mile campaigns around the world, and in particular Europe, have been said to have a negative affect on the world’s poorest.2 If only transport is taken into account when assessing a product’s carbon emissions, then naturally local producers, no matter their other inefficiencies, are preferred over those in other nations. Many African nations are net exporters of food products to Europe, and are hurt significantly by such claims of environmental detriment. As touched on above, the energy intensities of greenhouses far outweigh the costs associated with transport of field-produced fruits and vegetables.2

In addition, the type of food matters when it comes to analysing the environmental impacts of the food we eat. It is widely acknowledged that meat, and in particular red meat production is much harsher on the environment than other forms of food production. Whilst you might think that buying a locally-reared black angus eye fillet from your local butcher is better for the environment than buying an eye fillet produced elsewhere in Australia, it is in fact much better to limit consumption of red meat altogether, or replace it with chicken, fish or vegetarian options. Livestock production has a growing impact on the environment, largely attributed to the amount of methane produced by ruminants. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and although the exact figures aren’t agreed upon, worldwide methane emissions equate to approximately 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions.[3] Reducing our red meat intake will be a great challenge for policy makers and governments in the future, if we are to be serious about reducing our total greenhouse gas emissions.

The transport-related emissions of red meat are not a huge percentage of the overall GHG emissions, however in other foods, such as field-grown fruits and vegetables, transport can account for quite a large percentage of total emissions. In these products the mode of transport is something that we must take into account.

Because Australia is such a large country, sparsely populated and far away from the rest of the world, some of our foods have to travel a long way to get to our local supermarkets. If you live in Tasmania, for instance, buying bananas from Queensland that have been trucked and shipped down, as opposed to flown by plane, is a better option for the environment. Flying fresh produce is by far the most carbon-intensive method of transport and in field-grown produce, can account for the majority of carbon emissions of that product.

The important point to make here is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ rule for buying food that is environmentally efficient. Questions of environmental friendliness will change over time as factors and input efficiencies change, and from product to product.

So, what can we as consumers do to ensure the food we eat is produced in an environmentally sound way?

First of all we can ensure that we only buy produce that is fresh and in-season. Some products were never meant to be available all year round, such as asparagus or kiwifruit. However due to the enormous power of certain supermarkets and retailers, these foods are now available almost twelve months of the year. The emissions associated with cold storage or transport of these foods increase the carbon emissions greatly. In addition, buying fresher foods taste better. The older the food, the more tasteless and less nutritious it becomes. So learn about the foods that are in season now, and try to limit yourself to buying only those products.

Secondly, and as already mentioned, red meat is pretty carbon-intensive. Rather than heading to the local markets to buy red meat from your local producer, how about limiting your red meat consumption instead? This may be difficult for the carnivores out there, but chicken and fish are both lower-carbon options and supposedly replacing one day a week with a non-red meat source of protein is better for the environment than eating entirely locally-sourced foods everyday. [4]

From a policy perspective, we can encourage government agencies and producers to invest more heavily in energy-efficient production practices, for example, by running greenhouses on renewable energy. We can also demand, as consumers, more energy efficient storage solutions, and as mentioned above, reduce our demand for products that are out of season or sourced from far away.

As the landscape of energy efficiency is constantly changing, especially when it comes to food, it might be a good time to look at federal packaging information laws that clearly show consumers the environmental impact of the foods they eat. A French hardware company has recently made some great inroads into this.[5] In Australia, the ACCC governs the laws regarding false marketing or ‘greenwashing’, which will be the subject of another blog.

So next time someone tells you the benefits of being a locavore, kindly remind them that eating locally is only sometimes better for the environment, depending on the time of year, the food in question, and their place of residence. As with all things environmental, there are no easy answers and no quick solutions!


[1] Weber, C.L. & Matthews, H.S. (2008) “Food-miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 42, No. 10, pp. 3508-3513.

[2] Ballingall, J. & Winchester, N. (2010) “Food Miles: Starving the Poor?” The World Economy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

[3] http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/global.html#one

[4] Weber, C.L. & Matthews, H.S. (2008) “Food-miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 42, No. 10, pp. 3508-3513.

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To effect positive change, we design and produce unique and thought provoking experiences that activate people and challenge them to think differently about the ways in which we live in the world. We do this by applying a unique and eclectic approach to design, research, sociology, activation and cultural change. We started the Un-School of Disruptive Design and create tools and resources that activate and inspire others to create positive change.

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