Why there’s no mileage in ‘food miles’

At last, people are questioning the eco-parochialism of the local-food lobby. But what we need now is a loud defence of modernised food production.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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It’s such a simple concept: in order to understand the environmental impact of the food we eat, we should take into account how far it travels ‘from fork to fork’ – from digging up the soil to digging into our dinner. The idea has been picked up by everyone from ethical advisers to multi-nationals. Yet criticism of the ‘food miles’ concept is growing, and it has now even reached the right-on pages of Britain’s liberal Sunday paper, the Observer.

The term ‘food miles’ was coined in the 1990s by Professor Tim Lang, currently at City University in London but also a veteran of numerous institutions and organisations that have fretted about our food, from the London Food Commission (formed when Ken Livingstone first ran the capital in his ‘loony leftie’ era in the 1980s) to the campaign group, Sustain. For Lang, ‘the point was to highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production to consumers in a simple way, one which had objective reality but also connotations’ (1).

Following Lang’s creation of the ‘food miles’ idea, we have been inundated with shocked articles and campaigns raising awareness about the distances involved in bringing together a plate of food. In the UK, we get beef from Argentina (6,700 miles), pineapples from Ghana (3,100 miles), tomatoes from Spain (780 miles) or even Saudi Arabia (3,100 miles), prawns from Indonesia (7,300 miles) and lamb from New Zealand (11,700 miles). Put together a typical plate of lamb, potatoes from Israel (2,200 miles), green beans from Zambia (4,900 miles) and wash it down with a fruity Shiraz from Australia (9,000 miles) and your one course with plonk has collectively journeyed 27,800 miles. Golly.

Ever keen to do the right thing, supermarkets started slapping ‘airplane’ stickers on to their produce to indicate when food had been flown in or travelled a long way. Farmers Weekly, a British agriculture periodical, ran a campaign in 2006 around food miles declaring: ‘Local food is miles better.’ According to the ‘campaign facts’ page, food miles ‘hurt the environment’, ‘reduce freshness’, ‘mean less security’ (from those unstable countries we have to buy food from now), and make it harder to ‘monitor production and welfare standards’ (2). Such ideas must have felt heaven-sent for British farmers when profits were low and foreign competition was high. Farmers could dress up fears about food imports in environmental terms rather than their own narrow, economic concerns.

But the trouble with the concept of food miles is that it is not only simple but simple-minded. It even caused a little cat-fight in the green movement a couple of years ago. Outraged members of New Zealand’s Green Party wrote to their British counterparts to protest at the eco-calumny that we shouldn’t buy Kiwi food. ‘The total greenhouse emissions released in the production and transport of dairy and lamb shipped to Britain from New Zealand are lower than the emissions generated by the production of dairy and lamb in Britain’, declared New Zealand Green Party co-leader, Russel Norman (3).

Norman pointed to research from Lincoln University in New Zealand which showed that simply counting the miles travelled was little help in assessing the ‘ecological footprint’ of a particular foodstuff. For example, lamb reared on sunny New Zealand pasture and then shipped halfway round the world to the UK creates fewer carbon emissions than meat from animals reared on the rather less luscious grass in the fields of Wales or Scotland. That’s because farmers here in the UK have to add feed to the diets of their animals, feed which is grown using fertilisers and then transported to the farm – all of which emits CO2. There are lots of other examples – like those Spanish tomatoes – where growing food in sunnier climes and then shipping it to Britain uses far fewer resources and emits less pollution than growing crops in less favourable circumstances closer to home.

Even the dreaded green bean from Kenya, which has become the bête noire of foodies, cannot be so neatly cast as a villain. Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones, an expert on African agriculture, told the Observer: ‘Beans there are grown using manual labour – nothing is mechanised. They don’t use tractors, they use cow muck as fertiliser; and they have low-tech irrigation systems in Kenya. They also provide employment to many people in the developing world. So you have to weigh that against the air miles used to get them to the supermarket.’ (4)

Hence, the Observer‘s strident headline on Sunday: ‘How the myth of food miles hurts the planet.’ Or, as Dr Adrian Williams of the National Resources Management Centre at Cranfield University pithily put it: ‘The concept of food miles is unhelpful and stupid. It doesn’t inform about anything except the distance travelled.’ (5)

This was not, unfortunately, the end of the matter. After denouncing the idea of ‘food miles’, the authors of the Observer article then undertook a kind of eco-analysis yoga, contorting themselves with all sorts of factors to find a proper way to assess the environmental impact of our daily bread. And the bottom line? It’s tricky. There are so many different factors that go into the production, transportation, processing, selling, purchasing and cooking of all foods that any exercise in assessing ecological impact will only serve to provide gainful employment for environmental impact bean-counters.

For example, research conducted for the UK Department for Food, Rural Affairs and Agriculture (Defra) suggests that the short trip in the car to the supermarket or farmers market to pick up your shopping may be as important as the far larger distances travelled by the food itself, in bulk, from overseas by air or sea. Most ‘food miles’ are in fact undertaken in trucks and vans (6). But such facts haven’t stopped food giants, like supermarket Tesco and snack maker Walker’s, from trialling ‘carbon labels’ to replace those airplane stickers.

Aside from the sheer folly of the exercise, assessing our food in terms of its ecological impact is really a campaigning point, a condemnation of the world market in food and of industrialised food production. But this modernisation of food has provided us with both a far greater range of different food products than our grandparents would have known, meaning our diets are more interesting, and it has made food much cheaper, allowing more and more people to eat well and to devote their hard-earned cash to other things instead.

Raising productivity means that workers are freed from the grind of providing the essentials of life and can go and do something less boring instead. It’s a sad illustration of the anti-industrial times we live in when an expert like Edwards-Jones can defend the consumption of Kenyan beans on the basis that the country’s agricultural methods are more backward than Britain’s.

Critics of modern food production seem to want to stop the world and get off – no more so than so-called ‘locavores’, who only eat food produced in close proximity to their homes (see, for example, Why I’ve no appetite for the Fife Diet, by James Panton). This promotes a kind of ethically-sound parochialism, where we are asked to spurn the cornucopia of world agriculture for a narrow and puritan diet based on the produce of Farmer Giles down the road. (And increasingly, in these days of the middle classes returning to the land, Giles is his first name, not his surname.) There have always been food cranks – the difference is the way they are lionised today (see Buy British? A badly Soiled argument, by Brendan O’Neill).

Perversely, just when the world looks it might be on the road to getting rid of scarcity for good, food campaigners want to drag us back to the dreary diets of the past and make us pay more for the privilege. After all, if the distance travelled by our food was closely related to how much we paid for it, there would be little need to put pictures of aircraft on our food – the price tag would soon put us off. It’s the economies that come from buying food from countries better suited to growing it or with more specialised production that are an important factor in keeping prices down – which plays a major part in our day-to-day choices.

It’s good news if people are distancing themselves from the idea of food miles – though it looks like ever-more arcane methods of moralising about our food will be found by ethical living’s priestly class to replace it. In reality, the most ethical thing we can do is to try to work out how we can feed more people with better food. Everything else is just organic, cattle-produced fertiliser: bullshit.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons said that, despite rising food prices, we can still feed the world and he revealed the truth about organic food. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick looked at Peter Singer and the new ethical priesthood in the kitchen. Brendan O’Neill looked at the Soil Association’s Buy British campaign. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

(1) ‘locale / global (food miles)’, Tim Lang, Slow Food, 19 May 2006, p.94-97 (quoted in Food miles, Wikipedia)

(2) Food Miles facts, Farmers Weekly

(3) NZ Greens write to British Greens on food miles, Scoop, 31 October 2006

(4) How the myth of food miles hurts the planet, Observer, 23 March 2008

(5) How the myth of food miles hurts the planet, Observer, 23 March 2008

(6) The validity of food miles as an indicator of sustainable development, Defra, July 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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