Food Miles

Author: Zero Waste Volunteers

What is a Food Mile?

Food miles is the distance food is transported from the time of its making until it reaches the consumer. Food miles are one factor used when testing the environmental impact of food, such as the carbon footprint of the food. The concept of food miles originated in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom. It was conceived by Professor Tim Lang at the Sustainable Agriculture Food and Environment (SAFE) Alliance and first appeared in print in a report “The Food Miles Report: The dangers of long-distance food transport”, researched and written by Angela Paxton.

Importance of Food Miles

There are three main reasons why food miles are deemed important.

  • Firstly, food miles help in measuring food sustainability.
  • Secondly, food exports provide finances which farmers use to educate their children and earn a living.
  • Thirdly, food miles help in provision of a variety of food products for consumers. This is due to the fact that different types of foods are imported by countries from other countries.

For example, the United States imports dairy, eggs, meat, fish, and fruits from New Zealand because it produces extra quantities. This allows countries to produce more of something that another country has a limited quantity of which has led to comparative and absolute advantage in international trade.

The Calculation of Food Miles

A food mile is calculated by taking the distance travelled by each food ingredient and multiplying it by the quantity of the carbon that is produced by the type of transport used. The result of this calculation has the disadvantage of not being able to indicate whether or not the food product is sustainable.

Food Miles and the Environment

A Swedish researcher took a closer look at a typical Swedish breakfast (apple, bread, butter, cheese, coffee, cream, orange juice, sugar). His calculations showed that the distance the breakfast travelled before reaching the breakfast table was approximately one turn around the Earth. A similar calculation was done in Iowa, USA. There the research team concluded that to make one cartoon of strawberry yoghurt the ingredients travelled about 3 550 km. At that point the ice cream hadn’t even left the factory.

These numbers, together with the fact that transportation does release a lot of greenhouse gases (especially air and road transport), displays a real problem for the environment. However, to know the environmental impact of food isn’t as easy as calculating food miles. Transportation system and, as with organic food, the process of making the food might have an even greater impact on the environment. For example, potatoes trucked from 100 miles away might have a higher environmental impact than potatoes shipped by rail from 1000 miles away.

Criticism of Food Miles

Critics of food miles have observed that the calculation of food miles does not include the method used in the production of food at the factories. It also neglects the amount of energy used at the production level. They believe that these should be included in the calculation of food miles. Critics also state that the approach taken in assessment of food miles often omits the aspect of the local transport of food that is commonly referred to as “local loop.” Critics also consider life cycle analysis as a better way of measuring the environmental impact of food consumed than food miles.

What can we do?

There are several simple steps we can take to help reduce the environmental impact of food miles on the environment:

  • Shop locally and seasonally! if possible, leave the car at home.
  • Plan one big trip if using a large supermarket instead of going two or more times per week.
  • Buy fair-trade goods which support third world communities and are usually transported by sea.
  • Buy food with as little packaging as possible.
  • Buy organic produce.