The food industry urgently needs to understand the array of complex issues that surround sustainable production if a meaningful way of communicating with the consumer is to be found. The term Food Miles is too simplistic.

That’s according to Paul Watkiss – author of a DEFRA-commissioned report into the validity of food miles as an indicator of sustainability published in 2006 – speaking at the Corporate Climate Response conference in London today (31 May).

Dr Watkiss suggested a more complex “suite of indicators” was necessary to understand better the environmental credentials of food consumed in the UK.

“The discussion around food miles is too simplistic. We should be more interested in food vehicle kilometres – the environmental impact of a tonne of food varies with issues such as load factors,” he said.

He explained the suite of indicators should include urban food kilometres – in other words personal shopping and delivery distances travelled – HGV food kilometres, air food vehicle kilometres, and CO2 emissions.

Are food miles old hat? Join the debate on our Food for Thought blog 

“Urban food kilometres have gone up 20% between 1992 and 2002,” Dr Watkiss said. “HGV food kilometres are relatively stable, although there has been a 25% increase in tonne kilometres due to efficiency and size. Air transport has risen 140% from 1992-2002, and food transport emissions increased by about 15% in the same period.”

But, he said, even if all the complex information was available, policy decisions would be driven by a number of factors not just CO2 emissions.

“We’re also finding a wider debate about sustainability in terms of benefits to UK rural economies and farmers versus developing country imports and local development benefits – there are some extremely difficult choices here.

Policies would, he suggested, be determined by the viewpoints of decision makers, those viewpoints falling into two main camps.

“Those with a strong sustainability view are likely to favour local food: They say you should not trade off human and economic benefits against environmental benefits.

“Those with a strong economic view are people who are prepared to trade those things off, and are likely to favour imports.”

And he added that it was becoming increasingly complicated for consumers. “I think we need better quality research to look at some of these issues. If we are going to trade things off, we need to understand what we’re trading off.

Do we need carbon labels on food? Caroline Drummond of LEAF gives her take on the conference 

That research might include life-cycle analysis of food production and transportation, something that has already been conducted in New Zealand in response to what it sees as the growing threat of food miles as a form of protectionism.

It claims New Zealand lamb and dairy produce consumed in the UK is more carbon friendly, even allowing for the transportation, than the UK equivalent. It’s important to look at the whole process, not just the distance from market.

“Food miles has been instrumental in highlighting the importance of carbon dioxide in the supply chain, but it’s only one small part of it,” New Zealand winemaker Dave Pearce told the conference. “It falls very short of the big picture.”

And while Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network agreed there were a number of interlinked factors to consider, she said the food miles debate wasn’t necessarily a straight comparison between New Zealand and British lamb, for example.

“If your food system is predicated to high imports you make UK farming less viable so there won’t be many farmers.” That she suggested could mean a greater reliance even on more carbon-friendly imports could have unforeseen knock-on environmental impacts.

“We’re seeing big airports – set up to service freight – which require more customers, which means more aeroplanes. Suppliers could become more reliant on emergency top-ups which leads to more air freight.”

She offered a vision for what a less greenhouse gas intensive way of eating might look like.

“We might need to eat less dairy and meat and eat lower down the food chain. We could eat more seasonally field-grown foods, avoid hot-housed and air-freighted produce, reduce dependency on the cold [refrigerated] chain, waste less food, cook food more efficiently, and redefine our notions of quality.”

And she questioned the current year-round availability of food. “Do we need less choice, more variability of supply, non-availability, and a move away from chilled? But this is very, very challenging and I can’t see it happening tomorrow.”

In summary…

  • Food miles too simplistic to indicate sustainability
  • Suite of indicators recommended which looks at types and efficiency of transport
  • Life-cycle analysis a better way forward?
  • Unforeseen problems with increasing reliance on imported food
  • Need to understand the trade-offs between environmental sustainability and social and economic factors 

Listen to ASDA’s Chris Brown on food miles and carbon from the conference.


How green is our farm production?

According to DEFRA figures, the food chain accounts for some 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions, but 43% of those come from UK agriculture and fisheries, whereas all food transport comes to round 15%.

“When you look at food miles and say this is where we’re going to make the big difference, you’re not,” said DEFRA’s Andrew Dunn. “This is where life-cycle analysis comes in.”

That’s an issue that UK agriculture is beginning to tackle, according to NFU president Peter Kendall. “UK farming is up for the challenge of a neutral carbon footprint,” he said ahead of next month’s debate on the issue at Cereals 2007. “The industry must lead a constructive, consumer-based debate on the use of science to help farming reduce its carbon footprint.”