Food Miles

How Far has Your Food Travelled?

The term ‘food miles' is used as a way of measuring the distance a food travels, before you (or your animals) eat it. The more food miles that attach to a given food, the less sustainable and the less environmentally-desirable that food is.

The modern world has presented the opportunity for a massive expansion of transport of food, whether fresh or preserved. Aeroplanes, ships and containers have made bulk shipping practical.

On a small (national) scale, take the example of central depots for UK supermarket chains. A food might come from Devon. It would then be transferred, by lorry, to a central depot, perhaps in Berkshire. For it to be sold in Devon, it must then travel back down the roads whence it came, in response to a branch order.

You may find that you have bought a carrot that was grown in the field just over your garden fence, but not before it had travelled 200 miles. The transport cost and pollution factor is enormous. It is only by ‘economy of scale' that the supermarkets can afford to do it. Another crass example, brought to public notice by the Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) outbreak, is Bernard Matthews's traffic in turkey carcases, between Hungary and Suffolk, UK (and back again). What seems even more crazy is that he has been allowed to resume this activity.

The problem is severe when food that is slightly out of season in our country has to be imported thousands of miles from another, by air or sea. Surely it would be better to wait until it is in season in the UK, before deciding to buy it?

We have become used to unseasonal food on the supermarket shelves, while the real cost to the world of that food, in food miles, is kept very quiet. Another sad trend is that big supermarket chains are now buying cheap land in ex-iron curtain countries, so that they can exploit the local labour and the favourable exchange rate, by growing cheap food to ship to (and sell in) the UK.

Once again, consumer power is the answer, after a little effort spent in research. We can influence policy with our spending habits. We are not so short of food that we have to buy whatever is on offer. If we don’t reverse some of these trends in greed, the world is unsustainable in its present form, both for ourselves and for animals.