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.
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.