Food Miles High

30 Mar 2005

Local food may be ‘greener’ and more sustainable than organic. That is the conclusion of Professors Tim Lang of London’s City University, and Jules Pretty of Essex University, in a research study published recently in the Food Policy Journal1 (www.sciencedirect.com).

The authors set out to scientifically calculate the costs of “food miles” — the distance food travels before getting to our tables — and concluded that if British people only ate food grown within 20 km of home, the total savings for society would amount to 2.1 billion pounds a year.

Based on a UK food basket, they worked out the costs of pesticide pollution, air emissions, soil erosion, reduction of biodiversity and various effects on human health. They then used official UK statistics to calculate the costs (in pence per kilometer for each kind of transport) incurred in each trip from a farm to a supermarket and from a supermarket to a home.

They painstakingly analyzed the various types of transport, even examining the differences between home delivery, shopping on a bicycle or on foot and shopping by car. The results are surprising. Combining the costs of pollution caused by intensive agricultural methods, transport of food and subsidies paid to agriculture, the hidden costs amount to 11.8% of the price paid by the consumer. These costs are of course borne by the community.

Until now there have not been many attempts to carry out this type of analysis — environmental costs are frequently referred to, but it is perhaps the first time that they have been quantified so accurately. That is why the statement made at the beginning of the article seems so provocative. If British people only ate conventional but locally-produced food and did their shopping by bicycle or on foot, the hidden costs would drop to about 7%. This figure is exactly the same as if people only ate organic food, but with the food produced in Europe and shopping done by car.

Apart from prompting attention-grabbing headlines — the ideal would be local and organic, that goes without saying — the researchers showed that local sourcing was more important than had previously been thought. The aim of the research was to put a figure on all the hidden environmental costs involved in agricultural production. They came up with these findings on “food miles” that even they did not expect.

The merit of this research will hopefully be to focus the attention of policy-makers on these issues. Consumer choice — between organic and conventional food, between local and global — has significant effects on the environment and on agricultural systems. These effects can be quantified and should be considered as real costs. Making this information on food miles widely known would certainly influence consumer behavior and there should also be appropriate labeling. Fruit, vegetables, fish and meat have to be labeled with their places of origin nowadays, but in many cases the information is still too general. And for many processed foods it is practically impossible to trace the origin of the raw materials. If everything were clearly indicated on the label and consumers were educated about how much it can cost to transport food, I am sure that it would not be long before production systems started to change. These are issues which politicians should think about and address — with appropriate taxation policies, incentives and regulatory mechanisms. Distributors could maybe include the price in ‘food miles’ on the label — it would be a smart marketing move without waiting for legislation to be introduced. Ordinary consumers could be the first to act, by exercising their purchasing power and choosing food that was as clean and local as possible.

At a time when there is a lot of talk about international competitiveness, it is absolutely essential for these issues to be included in the debate. If people were properly informed they would realize which systems should be supported without there being any need to introduce restrictive measures.

1 ‘Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket’ in Food Policy, volume 30, number 1.

First published in La Stampa>I> on 14/03/2005

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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