Measuring food by the mile

How much of your dinner tonight will have been grown locally? And how much will have travelled several hundred miles - even several thousand miles - to reach your table?


Measuring food miles is a complex task but, reports Tim Lobstein, the results make disturbing reading.

Living Earth and The Food Magazine


An analysis of the materials needed to produce our food can be startling. Ten litres of orange juice needs a litre of diesel fuel for processing and transport, and 220 litres of water for irrigaton and washing the fruit. The water may be a renewable resource, but the fuel is not only irreplaceable but is a pollutant, too.

The problem is that fossil fuels, such as petrol and diesel are remarkably cheap. The price of the fuel itself does not reflect the cost of providing the roads on which the vehicles travel. Nor does it reflect the cost of the environmental damage that burning fossil fuel creates. Nor the cost of developing alternatives when the oil wells run dry. All these costs will have to be paid for sooner or later, but they are not added to the price of the food. If they were we might think very differently about whether we wanted to pay the true price for fresh lettuces from California, strawberries from Israel, and flowers from Kenya.

Food Miles Madness

'The real cost of food miles madness are seldom reflected in the price of food,' says SAFE Alliance co-ordinator Hugh Raven, 'It costs in terms of diverting land in food-deficit countries from producing food for local consumption into crops for export as with soya production in Brazil. It costs in terms of air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions from air and and road transport. It's madness to fly food halfway around the world when UK growers are going out of business - like the American raspberries on sale in the UK at the height of the raspberry season.

Flying commodites by air, which uses nearly 40 times the amount of fuel that sea transport uses, is now a regular feature of world trade. But cheap fuel can also be used to undercut local suppliers by bringing in commodities from further afield. Take apples. Britain now consumes more French apples than British ones. We have grubbed up over half of our orchards since the 1950s and now bring in apples from Europe, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and the USA. We could produce many more apples in the UK, benefiting rural communities and saving energy on packaging and transport, but we don't because the big supermarket buyers can get a better deal from the French and the fuel costs are low. For a few pence per pound, the rural economy in Britain is depleted - and the subsequent social and environmental costs of this depletion will then have to be paid for (but of course not by the supermarkets).

Calculating Environmental Costs

Now researchers in Britain and Germany have started to investigate the composite distances travelled by food, taking into account their ingredients and the materials for their packaging. To produce a small glass jar of strawberry yogurt for sale in Stuttgart, strawberries were being transported from Poland to west Germany and then processed into jam to be sent to southern Germany. Yogurt cultures came from north Germany, corn and wheat flour from the Netherlands, sugar beet from east Germany, and the labels and aluminium covers for the jars were being made over 300 km away. Only the glass jar and the milk were produced locally.

In counting the yogurt's environmental costs, the lorry emerged as the main culprit. contributing to noise, danger and pollution. The study found that to bring one lorry-load of yogurt pots to the south German distribution centre a 'theoretical' lorry must be moved a total of 1005 km, using some 400 litres of diesel fuel.

But there are a whole range of further hidden miles that these calculations ignore. To grow the strawberries for the jam for the yogurt, the farmer uses fossil fuels to plant, spray and harvest the fruit, and the sprays he uses have themselves been manufactured and distributed at some environmentat cost. The aluminium for the yogurt jar lids has come from mines many thousands of miles from the packaging plant. Then there is the machinery used for packaging the yogurt, which had to be brought in from Switzerland, perhaps, or Britain, to say nothing of the transport of the workers in the yogurt processing plant going to and from their homes every day. And the transport of shoppers from their homes to the shops, in order to buy the yogurt.. So the circle widens, at every point adding to the real costs of the yogurt, but which do not get added to the price and instead must be paid for in other ways at other times.

Food miles are big in the food aisles.

In early September, home-grown seasonal fruit and vegetables like apples, onions, carrots and green beans were available throughout the country. But so too, in three central London supermarkets, were apples 4,700 miles from the USA, onions over 12,000 miles from Australia and New Zealand, carrots from South Africa (51,000 miles) and beans from Kenya (3,600miles).

And then there is the question of the true cost of meat, and the vast tracts of land devoted to the growing of feedstuffs for rearing animals. This land is referred to in the British study of food miles (published by the SAFE Alliance) as 'ghost acres'.

Ghost Acres

These include some 44 million ghost acres in Thailand alone (ie an area about the size of Ireland) devoted to supplying manioc for European cattle. Export commodities such as these distort a developing country's agricultural economy, encouraging small farmers to participate in growing cash crops for export rather than food crops for local needs. Brazil has become a major supplier of soya beans for European animal feed, but to do this it has to cut down a quarter of its Cerrada plateau forest, some 12 million acres, causing immeasurable damage.

These are typical of the ghost acres, the distant, blighted areas of the world being exploited to satisfy European demands for meat and meat products. In the UK we exploit two of these ghost acres abroad for every one acre we farm at home. We can do this only because the true costs of exploiting Brazil and Thailand, and the true costs of shipping the animal feed to Europe, are not reflected in the price of the food consumers buy.

Both the SAFE report and the one from Wuppertal, Germany, call for more realistic fuel pricing policies through the introduction of a targeted fuel tax. They also urge manufacturers and retailers to review their purchasing policies in order to give greater priority to local producers.


Road Transport of Goods and the Effects on the spatial Environment, by Stefanie Boge, Wuppertal, Germany, July 1993.
A photocopy of the English summary (24 pagest can be obtained by post frorn the Food Commission, price 2.50 to cover costs).

The Food Miles Report: the dangers of long-distance food tansport, published by the SAFE Alliance, 38 Ebury Street, London SW1W 0LU, October 1994, price 25 or 10 concessions.
A six-page Food Miles Information Pack is also available from the SAFE Alliance.



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