Food Miles

Food miles is a term which refers to the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer. Food miles are one factor used when assessing the environmental impact of food, including the impact on global warming. The concept originated in the early 1990s in the UK. 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,’ by Angela Paxton.

Some scholars believe that an increase in the miles food travels is due to the globalization of trade; the focus of food supply bases into fewer, larger districts; drastic changes in delivery patterns; the increase in processed and packaged foods; and making fewer trips to the supermarket. At the same time, most of the greenhouse gas emissions created by food have their origin in the production phases, which create 83% of overall emissions of CO2.

A range of studies compare emissions over the entire food cycle, including production, consumption, and transport. These include estimates of food-related emissions of greenhouse gas ‘up to the farm gate’ versus ‘beyond the farm gate.’ In the UK, for example, agricultural-related emissions may account for approximately 40% of the overall food chain (including retail, packaging, fertilizer manufacture, and other factors), whereas greenhouse gases emitted in transport account for around 12% of overall food-chain emissions. The goal of environmental protection agencies is to make people aware of the environmental impact of food miles and to show the pollution created and the energy used to transport food over long distances.

The concept of food miles is part of the broader issue of sustainability which deals with a large range of environmental, social and economic issues, including local food. Although it was never intended as a complete measure of environmental impact, it has come under attack as an ineffective means of finding the true environmental impact.

Business leaders such as Skidmore Professor James Kennelly have adopted food miles as a model for understanding inefficiency in a food supply chain. Wal-Mart, famously focused on cost-saving efficiency, was an early adopter of food miles as a profit-maximizing strategy. Wegman’s, a 71-store chain across the northeast, has purchased local foods for over 20 years. In their case, the produce manager in each store controls the influx of local foods, the relationships with the local farms are not centrally controlled.

With processed foods that are made of many different ingredients, it is very complicated, though not impossible, to calculate the CO2 emissions from transport by multiplying the distance traveled of each ingredient, by the carbon intensity of the mode of transport (air, road or rail). However, as both Prof. Lang and the original Food Miles report noted, the resulting number – although interesting, cannot give the whole picture of how sustainable – or not – a food product is. Its value is in highlighting one of the many damaging aspects of the current, globalized food and farming system.

According to Oxfam researchers, there are many other aspects of the agricultural processing and the food supply chain that also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions which are not taken into account by simple ‘food miles’ measurements.

Farm animals account for between 20% and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That figure includes the clearing of land to feed and graze the animals. Clearing land of trees, and cultivation, are the main drivers of farming emissions. Deforestation eliminates carbon sinks, accelerating the process of climate change. Cultivation, including the use of synthetic fertilizers, releases greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide. Nitrogen fertilizer is especially demanding of fossil fuels, as producing a ton of it takes 1.5 tons of oil. It’s increasingly recognized that meat and dairy are the largest sources of food-related emissions.

A commonly ignored element is the local loop. The act of driving further to a more ‘right-on’ food source increases the total carbon footprint. A shopper may buy say 5 kg of meat and use about a gallon to get it. That piece of meat could have gone over 60,000 miles by road (at 8mpg) to require the same carbon in transportation. However, this is an extreme scenario, in which a consumer burns a gallon of gasoline (30 or 40 miles of travel) to buy a single food item, 5 kg of meat, and neglects to consider the fact that the consumer must travel to the point of sale for long-haul meat, as well. While extreme consumer behavior can certainly cancel any environmental benefit arising from any food-buying choice, it is a different question whether this happens in practice.

Lifecycle analysis, a technique that meshes together a wide range of different environmental criteria including emissions and waste, is a more holistic way of assessing the real environmental impact of the food we eat. The technique accounts for energy input and output involved in the production, processing, packaging and transport of food. It also factors in resource depletion, air pollution and water pollution and waste generation/municipal solid waste. A number of organizations are developing ways of calculating the carbon cost or lifecycle impact of food and agriculture. Some are more robust than others but, at the moment, there is no easy way to tell which ones are thorough, independent, and reliable, and which ones are just marketing hype.

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