One Long Journey: Food Miles In the UK

Food is one thing that everyone is always happy to talk about. But what about food miles? Where food comes from to get to the consumer’s table is a remarkable journey and sometimes, a very long one. Unfortunately, this transportation of produce – often by air – is a huge supplier of greenhouse gas emissions and therefore contributes to climate change. According to a figure from 2015, the UK supplied over half (52%) of the food consumed in the UK. The leading foreign suppliers of food were countries from the EU (29% of the overall consumed in the UK) and Africa, Asia, North and South America (all providing a 4% share each), (2% rest of Europe and 1% Australasia). Our food is coming from further away than ever before, at the same time of a discussion to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. With methods such as planting trees, switching to clean energy and car usage all coming up in the conversation, I think food miles definitely deserve a place in there too. Preferably sitting comfortably beside the plant-based diet debate.

Down the line, there has been a shift in where our food comes from. The desire to have foods that consumers want and to have these all year round has meant that food miles, the distance from origin to table, have increased. It’s an area not many people know much about, compared to other environmental issues and ingredients from abroad is a fact of life for shoppers.

Figures indicate that our 5-a-day are the most travelled, 95% of our fruit comes from abroad and 50% of all veg is imported. Fruits and vegetables are usually in season for a short period of time but in supermarkets are often readily available 365 days round. As demand for products such as fresh berries increase, suppliers have found ways to transport products from in-season growing areas in the southern hemisphere to consumers residing in the northern hemisphere during the off season.

For food other than fresh produce, figures are less high. However, animal products are up there amongst the list of imports accounting for a lot of mileage. Going back to that 4% of foreign supply from Asia and South America, chicken is one product brought and sold in thousands of tonnes in the UK. Prawns are another large export from Asia.

Wine is a more obvious player in transported goods. Most wine is shipped, and country of origin is a factor a lot of people consider when buying. New Zealand and Australia are particularly popular for export, involving a journey of some 14,000 miles.

Reducing the carbon footprint of food is not as simple as choosing not to buy fresh fruit and vegetables flown in from other places, however. For one thing, the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest people are dependent on exporting by plane. The £200 million fresh fruit and vegetable trade with the UK supports one million people living in Africa.

According to the BBC, to support environmentally friendly food production without unnecessarily harming vulnerable developing economies, the Soil Association has decided that, in order to qualify as ‘organic’, all air-freighted food will have to meet ethical trade standards from 2009. Incidentally most Fairtrade fruit is transported by sea.

The challenge for the future is to reduce the impact food production, and food mileage included in this, has on climate change. Consumers are unlikely to change their behaviour and stop having out of season produce all year round. As air travel is very bad for the planet and transport by plane generates 177 times more greenhouse gases than shipping does, undoubtedly there needs to be more attention on how to make food miles less about air and more about sea, in a way that does not harm growers. Traditionally, shipping uses heavy fuel oil, a terrible pollutant and one that has made shipping associated with dirty pollution. Ideas such as reducing the amount of fuel used and switching to cleaner power have both been brought up surrounding the debate over sustainable sea freight.

Climate change is at the absolute forefront of issues, not just in the UK but on a global scale. Now is a crucial time to discuss all that contributes to global warming, with the potential to lead the fight against climate change in the run up to 2050.

Image credit: ElasticComputeFarm


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Rosie Alice

Rosie Alice

Environmental writings and NGO volunteer
Rosie Alice

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