Food miles – Dump or adopt?

Is “Food Miles” the right answer? Andrew Slavin of Corporate Climate Response previews a conference in London on 31 May:

Next week the food industry gathers in London to discuss the issues raised by climate change.

It is clear consumers and producers are becoming increasingly focused on the many issues surrounding the causes and consequences of climate change.

There is virtually no food retailer in the UK unwilling to make a visible and vocal statement of their environmental credentials – whether it’s Marks & Spencer’s £200m Eco-plan or Sainsbury’s This is not a plastic bag campaign. They all see a competitive advantage in going green.

But one green issue affecting this sector is more controversial than all the others – food miles.

While it is clearly insufficient to simplify the impact of food production, distribution and consumption to a unit of length, the term “food miles” does have growing resonance with consumers.

On one level, consumers appreciate that eating new potatoes flown in from Spain in the middle of a British winter does not sit comfortably with their green consciences. As a result, we’re seeing an increase in demand for locally grown, seasonal produce.

Scratch the surface of this issue and you are faced with the many complexities thrown up by climate change and the food industry.

Take the environmental impact of the aforementioned spuds. The carbon footprint of driving to a supermarket, buying potatoes, coming home and boiling them far outweighs the emissions produced by growing them in Spain and shipping them to the UK. 

In the face of a sophisticated and demanding consumer, food retailers and producers are now starting to tackle this issue in a number of interesting ways.

Walkers’ Crisps for example, is probably the first manufacturer in the UK that determines and publishes the carbon footprint of its product: 75g per packet to be precise.

Is that a lot? I don’t know either? It’s a lot of salt but what is the RDA of carbon these days?  Does using weight instead of length make things simpler for the consumer?

The New Zealand Wine Company, which clearly has a lot to lose if food miles gains traction, has devised a carboNZero range of wines. And M&S has started to label air-freighted produce to alert green shoppers.

The food industry is just at the start of a long journey as it faces up to the realities of climate change. The current focus is on consumer issues but as time goes by adaptation to climate change will also come to the fore.

It is with this background of uncertainty that the food retail industry is gathering in London to discuss the current issues raised by climate change. As well as major discussions on product lifecycle, carbon labeling, and greening stores, there is a major debate on the industry’s approach to food miles.

Farmers Weekly’s Julian Gairdner, who led the publication’s Local Food is Miles Better campaign last year is on the panel of experts, and FWi will be reporting from the event…

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