across the world burns up a lot of fossil fuel and contributes to global warming.
“Food miles” - the total distance in miles the food item is transported from
field to plate - has become accepted as a convenient indicator of sustainability;
and has led to a general movement towards local production and local consumption
in order to minimize them. This raises fundamental questions about the sustainability
of the globalised food trade and the increasing concentration of the food supply chain
and distribution in the hands of fewer and fewer transnational corporations.
UK’s Department of the Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has commissioned a report to look into The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable
Development, which was published in July 2005. The company
commissioned to do the report was AEA Technology, formerly part of the United
Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and now a private sector company that was
floated on the London stock exchange in 1996. Given the narrow remit of the
report, it nevertheless came up with some damning evidence against the dominant
food system. The question is whether the political will is there to move forward
from the discredited model.
Causes for the increase of food miles correctly identified
correctly identified the five most striking changes in the UK food production
and supply chain in the last fifty years that have greatly increased food
Globalisation of the food industry with increased imports and exports and ever
wider sourcing of food within the UK and abroad
of the food supply base into fewer, larger suppliers, partly to meet demand
for bulk year-round supplies of uniform produce
changes in delivery patterns with most goods now routed through supermarket
regional distribution centres using larger HGVs (heavy goods vehicles)
and concentrated sales in supermarkets where a weekly shop by car has replaced
frequent pedestrian shop visits
These trends all add to food miles. Since 1978, the annual amount of
food moved by HGVs in the UK has increased by 23 percent with the average
distance for each trip also up by 50 percent.
The report stated, “The rise
in food miles has led to increases in the environmental, social and economic
burdens associated with transport. These include carbon dioxide emissions,
air pollution, congestion, accidents and noise. There is a clear cause and
effect relationship for food miles for these burdens – and in general higher
levels of vehicle activity lead to larger impacts.”
It was against this background that DEFRA commissioned the study.
Scope of the report limited
was meant to:
Compile a food miles dataset covering the supply chain from farmer (both
in the UK and abroad) to the consumer in 1992, 1997 and 2002.
Assess the main trends leading to the increase in food miles at home and
Identify and quantify the environmental, economic and social impacts of
Develop a set of indicators which relate food miles to their main impacts
These tasks are narrowly based and treat transport in isolation from the
rest of the food cycle. The energy-intensive globalised industrial model
that is accepted as given, and indeed actively promoted by the government
and the food and drinks industry, inevitably entails a massive food transport
system. A more holistic and useful remit for the study would have been one
that looked at the energy demands of the whole industrial farming and food
model, including its specialized transport needs against those of a localised
organic, energy conscious model that prioritises energy conservation and minimizes
waste (see “Sustainable Food Systems for Sustainable Development” SiS27).
This would have sharpened the focus on the costs/benefits of the two food
strategies and allowed the government to choose more rationally the one that
is in the interests of the people and the environment that it currently only
pays lip service to.
The study finds, unsurprisingly, that a single indicator based on total food
miles is inadequate. That’s because some miles such as air miles cost more
in energy and carbon dioxide emissions; and others, such as HGV miles, cost
more in terms of infrastructure damage. So a “suite of indicators” is suggested.
Nevertheless, the study does admit that “Food transport has significant and
growing impacts”, and goes to some lengths to document these.
Food transport has significant and growing impacts
accounted for an estimated 30 billion vehicle kilometres in 2002 of which
82 percent were in the UK; it accounted for 25 percent of all HGV kilometres
in the UK and produced 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, of which 10 million
tonnes were emitted in the UK; almost all from road transport. This represented
1.8 percent of the total annual UK CO2 emissions, and 8.7 percent of the total emissions
of the UK road sector.
Transport of food by air had the highest CO2 emissions per tonne,
and is the fastest growing mode. Although air freight of food accounts for
only 1 percent of food tonne kilometres and 0.1 percent of vehicle kilometres,
it produces 11 percent of the food transport CO2 equivalent emissions.
The direct social, environmental, and economic costs of food transport
are estimated at over £9 billion each year, and are dominated by congestion.
The social cost of congestion is estimated at £5 billion. Accidents lead to
social costs of £2 billion per year, and greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution,
noise and infrastructure cost a further £2 billion.
The report is in no doubt that “The total costs are very significant compared
with the gross value of the agricultural sector of £6.4 billion, and the food
and drink manufacturing sector of £19.8 billion.”
In other words, the £26.2 billion made by agriculture and the food and
drink industry involve externalizing £9 billion (34 percent) of the costs,
largely to the taxpayer. This is an underestimate, as the report stressed
that impacts due to air transport have not been included.
These statistics, dire as they are, only hint at the scale of the real
problem both at home and abroad, where identical produce is swapped across
Europe and cash crops are flown in from the Third World for the furtherance
of ‘free trade’ promoted by the World Trade Organization and other free trade
The report should have sounded a warning for the urgent need to decrease
these burdens on our environment and society at source. National and international
policies that aim to encourage a comprehensive shift to low input, organic
local production and local consumption, and real investments into renewable
energies in place of fossil fuels are among the most important options for
making our food system sustainable. This would substantially reduce CO2
emissions at a stroke, as well as wipe out the enormous externalized costs
of food transport over long distances.
Recommendations for further work
The report ends with
“Recommendations for further work”, the last of which was on policy, pointing
out that the “impacts of any changes in food
sourcing or food transport depend to a large extent on the policy framework,
and on the response of consumers, producers and industry to those policies.” It suggests a study of potential policies to include:
Sourcing food more locally where appropriate e.g. consumer awareness,
public procurement, support for local food initiatives, strengthening UK
Reducing car food shopping e.g. home delivery, support for local and in-town
shops, provision of safe cycle and pedestrian access
Reducing transport impacts e.g. cleaner vehicles, improved logistics,
Internalising the social costs of transport to reflect the costs to society
of pollution, congestion, accidents, noise and so on, in the prices paid
by transport users
Improving the wider sustainability of the food chain e.g. ethical trading,
improved energy efficiency in the local food sector
This is a very partial list of useful policies that essentially leaves
the existing food system untouched.
Reports commissioned by the
UK government from private consultants cost the taxpayers £1 billion annually.
They cannot be value for money if all they do is entrench governments in the
very policies that have created the problems identified.
It is clear, from the causes
of increased food transport identified at the beginning of the report, that
policies are needed to minimize food import/export, to promote instead, national/regional
food-sufficiency, and to reverse the concentration of food supply chains in
favour of local shops and cooperatives run directly by farmers and consumers.
In addition, there should be government subsidies and incentives for reducing
carbon dioxide emissions on farms, and for farms and local communities to
become energy self-sufficient in low or zero-emission renewables.