Britain is one of the most striking examples of the ‘food miles’ phenomenon. Every year 333 million tons of food are moved around the country, and just last year UK imports of food amounted to over 83 billion tons, most of which travels by air.
This issue has recently fallen under considerable public and corporate scrutiny. With perhaps the noisiest, most sophisticated voice against food miles coming from the direction of UK group Transport 2000 and their ‘Wise Moves’ initiative.
As program coordinator Tara Garnett explains, ‘Wise Moves’ was inaugurated in May 2000 ‘to research greener approaches to local sourcing and distributing goods, particularly those that cut the total distance goods travel’.
To answer these questions with practical solutions, ‘Wise Moves’ commissioned a weeping study into whether ‘ a shift to sourcing goods more locally would lead to greater or fewer greenhouse gas emissions in the food supply chain as a whole; and if fewer, then how might a locally based logistics system work?’.
Still in its formative stages, the organization hasn’t yet formulated a precise set of solutions to what it calls ‘sustainable food sourcing’. As Tara Garnett says, ‘We’re still exploring what the questions and the questions underlying the questions might be’.
‘Wise Moves’ falls under the umbrella of Transport 2000, an independent national body concerned with sustainable, environmental y-friendly transport . Its concerns about food miles focus predominately on their greenhouse impacts.
The knee-jerk reaction to this problem of food miles will always be local sourcing. But it isn’t that simple, as Tara takes pains to explain: ‘Local sourcing on a large scale will have its own environmental impacts and it’s this that “Wise Moves” is looking into’. Without proper management, she argues, going local could have various negative environmental impacts.
These impacts “Wise Moves” has labeled and defined as ‘trade-offs’, meaning ‘greenhouse gas emissions which occur elsewhere in the life cycle of the product as a result of changes to the system of sourcing and transporting the good in question’.
Such ‘trade-offs’ include everything from the costs of heating glasshouses locally compared to sourcing from a distance, where greenhousing is not necessary, to the greenhouse gases generated through use of fertilizers on products close to home.
Or, in regards to transport modes, the movement of produce by slower, more sustainable modes such as ship may be more environmentally friendly than air transport, though the refrigeration costs of keeping the produce fresh during the voyage could be significantly higher.
As part of its initial research, ‘Wise Moves’ is running case studies on three common British foods; braeburn and gala apples, iceberg lettuce and cherries. Under examination is the sourcing and distribution of these foods in an East Anglian Cooperative , which seeks to source locally wherever possible but also brings in overseas food to ensure year-round supply.
After almost a year of study, the cooperative is so far significantly ahead of the supermarkets in environmental friendliness, though it lost points in its attempts to keep the customers happy all year round.
According to the preliminary conclusions, if the coop ceased to import fruit to ensure year-round availability, and improved the distribution system by creating a series of local consolidation points, where local suppliers could deliver their goods, it could become a realistic and environmentally valid option to the flawed and unsustainable contemporary food system.
‘Wise Moves’ is currently collecting this research into a study and guideline program for coops around the UK, which it hopes to roll out within a couple of years.
In the meantime, the message is to think local and buy seasonal. Watch this space for more updates.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team