Food miles - why eat 'local'?

You'll be surprised at how well-travelled your food is.
 
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  • Updated:28 Oct 2008
 

01 .The distance food travels

Earth and shopping trolleys

In brief

  • A typical basket of groceries from the supermarket has “food miles” equivalent to two loops of the globe.
  • Food miles were never devised as the sole indicator of a product’s overall environmental impact but rather one component of the larger environmental picture.

“Food miles” measure the distance food travels between production and consumption and the results can be alarming. CHOICE unpacks the concept of food miles and provides tips for eating more sustainably.  

Food miles advocates are calling for localised eating to counter the number of imported products on our supermarket shelves. But is it even possible to eat well on food grown within about 160km of where you live?

Back in 2005, a UK study broke down the dollar value of the environmental costs of producing and transporting food through the supply chain – and coined the term 'food miles'. The premise is that the further a product travels, the more fuel is required, so its greenhouse gas emissions are higher.

By opting for an orange grown in Mildura rather than California, you can reduce food miles from almost 13,000 km to under 600 km. But is it really that simple? Researchers at the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES) found that a typical Melbourne shopping basket has travelled a staggering 70,000 kilometres – almost two loops of the globe.

Please note: this information was current as of October 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


Have these chips seen more of the world than you?

Kettle chipsThe Kettle Chips packet says "made in Australia", with a Sydney address, but the ingredients come from all over:

  • The spuds are sourced from all along Australia's east coast.
  • The salt’s from Price in South Australia.
  • The sunflower oil is extracted in Newcastle and refined in Sydney.

The same goes for its packaging, which comprises fused layers of plastic and aluminium, with coloured ink for labelling.

  • The plastic film is from Wodonga.
  • The inks are made in Melbourne using components from India, China, the US and Europe.
  • Aluminium from Italy is added in Sydney, but the aluminium itself has probably been smelted from Australian bauxite.
  • The chips are made in Shepparton – and then transported to your store!

This one example at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum illustrates the extraordinary number of "food miles" – the distance food is transported between production and consumption – an average product can clock up, even when it's Australian.

 
 

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Many arguments are put forward about reducing food miles, so let’s straighten out some key ones. Here are the arguments in support.

It supports local food producers and connects you with your community

This isn't always the case. But if you are shopping at a local farmers' market (see our article) you might see this benefit.

market sellers

It means you eat fresher food, that's in season

Finding really fresh food is great for your health, but be aware that frozen vegies can have higher vitamin levels than their fresh equivalents that have been in distribution for a few days. Food miles are not a reliable gauge of either freshness or what is in season when food can be transported a long way, quickly. In winter, you can find strawberries grown in Australia. Apples are cold-stored for up to a year before they hit the shelves. So to eat seasonally, you need to know what should be in season.

Food miles reduce reliance on oil, so reduce carbon emissions

In the 1990s, faced with access to a mere fraction of its usual oil imports following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Cuba re-invented its food production systems. The country turned to organic fertiliser, animal traction, mixed cropping and biological pest controls. As a result, food production was brought closer to the people eating it. Urban gardens in the heart of Havana now produce half the vegetables consumed by the capital’s two million residents.

The equation is simple for products produced identically: the one that's travelled a shorter distance has the lower carbon footprint. But as with the case of the simple packet of potato chips, where a product is "made" rarely reflects the entire transport impact. And when you factor in production as well as transport, the results can be surprising. A US study recently found that transportation accounts for only 11 per cent of food's total greenhouse emissions, and what would class as food miles – the transport between the producer and retailer – is only 4 per cent of total greenhouse emissions.

Sometimes it uses more oil to produce a product locally. New Zealand researchers studying food miles argued that lamb produced and sold in the UK requires four times the energy inputs than lamb produced in New Zealand and transported to the UK. So the 'local' product has a larger carbon footprint.

The concept is catchy and easy to understand

There’s no doubt food miles are an excellent indicator of the distance food travels from producer to consumer. And it's a simple thing to grasp. Rather than get hung up on what food miles don't achieve, researchers have used them as one aspect of a raft of environmental impacts of food production. The catchy terminology is a great way to raise awareness and question the way our food is produced.

Here are the arguments against monitoring food miles.

It's anti-trade and anti-development, because it stops you buying imports

Is fair-trade organic chocolate from overseas such a bad choice? And what would happen to Australian exports if food miles were scrutinised too closely overseas? It's not just the distance that has an environmental impact, but how efficiently it was transported. However, consumers are unlikely to be told that. The method of transport is easier to display – a plane travelling from Auckland to Sydney emits more greenhouse gases than a ship with the same cargo – and you can make environmental inferences from that.

Tesco supermarket in the UK introduced a voluntary ‘air freighted’ logo on products to help consumers identify products with higher environmental impacts. A major UK organic certifier, the Soil Association, has been consulting on the issue, and has recommended changes to its organic standards aimed at reducing the amount of organic product that is air freighted into the UK and making sure ones that do come by air meet ethical trade standards.

It can reduce the variety in your diet

Experts agree that for good nutrition, we should eat a variety of foods. When the Canadian authors of the "100-mile diet" (Smith and MacKinnon) first started out, they found a limited range of food they could source within their self-imposed limit of 100 miles from home. Anyone here following the 100 mile diet strictly would feel similarly restricted on some of the basics – Melburnians couldn’t access sugar and Sydneysiders would have to go without wheat.

Earth

Food miles don't tell the whole environmental story

Not only do food miles not indicate the full greenhouse impact, they don't tell you the whole environmental and social story. They are just one piece of the 'grow-process-distribute-consume-dispose' chain. Farms and factories where our food is grown and processed have other environmental effects like impacts on wildlife, soil degradation and salinity, use of harmful pesticides, fertilisers that require a huge amount of energy to make, water and energy consumption, and wastage. Food miles don't tell the whole story – and people forget they weren't originally intended to.

It's hard to implement

The study of a typical Melbourne shopping basket, whilst shocking, is pretty hard for the average consumer to replicate. Even if you want to become a 'locavore', you can have a tough time finding out how far things have travelled. Inadequate food labelling means most products don’t tell you everything you would like to know, as our sustainable seafood article showed. Strict proponents of the 100 mile diet go to a lot of effort, asking lots of questions and finding new places to source their food from, to ensure their food miles are low.

04.Applying the concept and the verdict

 

Read the label

Researchers at CERES advise that going for same State or even same country, and for products with fewer ingredients, will cut food miles without headaches. Fresh produce, for example, has to state a place of origin. Of course it's sensible to use what information you do have, but our advice is to be realistic about it – you won't always be able to make an accurate or complete judgement.

Waste not, want not

Manage what you've got – in Australia it's estimated we waste more than $5.3bn worth of food annually. Too much of our food is wasted and it's a source of greenhouse gas emissions when sent to landfill too. Shop wisely, buying only what you think you can realistically use, and try to incorporate leftovers into your repertoire of recipes.

Support businesses that work it out for you

Some businesses cater for people trying to reduce their food miles. There's a eatery in Melbourne called The 100 Mile Café that focuses on sourcing local produce.

  • Farmers' markets bring together food producers from the local area, so you don’t have to expend energy looking for them. (See our CHOICE article or check out local Farmers Markets at www.farmersmarkets.org.au.)
  • Some food co-operatives and organic home delivery companies strive to source food as locally as possible. Ask them.
  • Community Supported Agriculture is where the local grower agrees to supply a group of consumers with a variety of freshly picked organic food for the entire season. For example in Brisbane there's Food Connect and in Perth there's Mimsbrook Farm.

basket of vegetables

Eat more food in season

By eating seasonally you get the most flavour and nutritional value. Nationally there's huge climatic variation within Australia. You can find out more about your local seasonal availability of foods by contacting your State's Department of Agriculture or the produce markets in your capital city. If you don't have time to research it at this level, simply being aware of price changes will help. When it's in season, produce will come down in price. But remember to combine this with place of origin – for example we get cheap grapes in winter but they come all the way from the US.

Grow some of your own

There are lots of ways to do it. Window pots of herbs and greens, the balcony or the backyard, or access some more space by joining a community garden, where you can meet and learn from other gardeners (Find out more from the Community Gardens Network).

CHOICE Verdict

There's been some misunderstanding that food miles were devised to show total environmental impact of food production systems – for that they're a poor indicator. They should be seen as one aspect of the bigger environmental picture.

But it's useful that food miles is generating discussion about issues ranging from pollution, economic diversity and food security to bigger questions about energy and mineral resource depletion, urbanisation, drought and climate change.

Your say - Choice voice

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