Food Miles

REcENT Years Have seen increasing concern about the long-term sustainability of food systems and their unintended side effects that can be imposed on the global environment and human wellness. Food miles are an appraisal of the distance a food or beverage travels from field to plate. While the cost of making things has never been cheaper, the cost of moving them around has never been as high, and it is getting higher. This is partly a consequence of outsourcing practices involving industries and retailers.

The logic is that the fewer miles foods are transported, the less fuel is used, thereby reducing the carbon footprint on the environment and improving sustainability. Some major retailers, such as Asda (Wal-Mart) in the United Kingdom, have introduced measures aimed at cutting CO2 emissions, such as a change to bio-diesel and moving more freight by train. Direct deliveries of locally grown goods have increased as people have become more interested in provenance issues. In the United States, supermarket chains like Whole Foods and Wal-Mart announced they are reducing the transport distances of the foods they purchase. For example, in 2006, Wal-Mart announced that it would source its seafood only from fisheries certified as sustainable and well managed by the international Marine Stewardship Council.

The trade-off between minimized financial investment with high levels of automation on one hand, and intensively-used, low-cost transport on the other, needs strategic re-thinking. The attention retailers are paying to food miles demonstrates this, as they look to differentiate themselves from the competition, and, in the end, to protect the environment. Carbon footprint labels will bring the concept of food miles to bottled beverages in a way that is currently only the case with fruits and vegetables. The externalities arising from production systems indicate some important policy priorities for developed nations, particularly in North America and Europe. Some governments are taking action to reduce the environmental and social costs of food transport, particularly in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. At a broader level, the European Union has been considering the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

It is very difficult to determine the distance food travels, and by what means. Therefore, buying locally with clear provenance can make the food industry more sustainable. Purchasing seasonally helps neutralize the need for artificial heating in greenhouses. The drive to reduce food miles and reduce CO2 could have social impacts on growers in developing countries, as global value chains are redirected. A specific tax on food miles for manufacturers and retailers reported in the companie's annual reports could also help to achieve sustainability.

Fresh and processed foods can travel large distances around the world. However, sometimes it is not easy to identify the place of origin. Also, sourcing products locally is a great initiative, but many of the products may not be available locally. Transport is only one issue of the overall environmental impact of food and beverages production and consumption. The delivery cost captured by food miles does not take into account the energy use or CO2 emissions in the production stage. It also assumes the same level of energy efficiency, no matter where it originates. For example, New Zealand is the world's biggest exporter of dairy products. Calculating food miles does not capture other carbon costs such as the use of heated indoor milking sheds common among northern hemisphere dairy farms.

Export-oriented countries, such as New Zealand, have been taking measures to counter the food miles argument, particularly in the United Kingdom. For example, this is the case of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and wine. The distance products travel are not necessarily directly related to their carbon footprints. If the concern about food miles is global warming, then the focus should be on gas emissions and energy efficiency, not on distance.

SEE ALSo: Agriculture; Carbon Footprint; Food Production; Global Warming.

BIBLIogRAPHY. Sarah Murray, Moveable Feasts: The Incredible Journeys of the Things We Eat (Aurum Press Ltd., 2007); J.N. Pretty, et al., "Farm Costs and Food Miles: An Assessment of the Full Cost of the U.K. Weekly Food Basket," Food Policy (v.30, 2005).

Alfredo Manuel Coelho UMR MOISA SupAgro Montpellier, France

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