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Food Miles and Their Environmental Impact

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Table of contents

  1. Background
  2. Introduction
  3. Road transportation factor
    Production footprint factor
    Food miles in perspective


Food miles are miles over which a food item is transported during the journey from producer to consumer, as a unit of measurement of the fuel used to transport it. The food miles’ concept, originating in the UK and given much prominence in the news media, has been used to imply that importing food from distant countries is inherently more wasteful than growing and consuming local produce. What impact is this potential non-tariff barrier having on consumer buying behavior in UK supermarkets?

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Revealed preference surveys in four supermarkets show only 10% of 300 consumers nominated country-of-origin as one of the reasons for choosing a fresh food item they had just purchased. Furthermore, only 5.4% indicated that they had consciously chosen British products for the reason that such produce was “less harmful for the environment.” In contrast, stated preference surveys in the street found that 18.5% indicated that “food miles” or “the long distance it travels” would stop them buying New Zealand products. What people say may differ substantially from what they actually do in regard to “food miles.”


According to a Mintel survey in 2007, 40% of adults would like to have more information on how far food has traveled, and 19 % say they are using country of origin labeling to make shopping decisions. Most Britons do not care where the fruit and vegetables they buy come from, are not motivated to buy British and don't consider 'food miles' in their purchases, according to a new survey. In the survey of 997 people, 61 percent are not concerned which country their produce came from, with only 9 percent describing themselves as 'very concerned' and 30 percent 'fairly concerned' about the issue. While 54 percent of the over-50s said they regularly or always buy produce grown in this country, just 32 percent of 25-34s do so. Similarly, only 36 percent of shoppers knows what 'food miles' are – the distance goods have travelled to reach the British shops, which is a big issue to environmental campaigners. Just over half those surveyed, 52 percent, believe the UK should import less food so that the environmental damage is limited, even if there is less variety in shops and food costs more as a result. But 23 percent think this country should maintain – or even increase – imports of food, in order to preserve variety and keep costs low. The conventional argument given by environment champions is that longer the transportation distance read food miles, the more is the energy consumed leading to burning of more fossil fuel and consequently leading to emission of more GHGs into the air, which causes global warming.

The obvious logical solution provided by such environment campaigners is to source food from a nearby place so that the distance traversed from the point of origin to the point of consumption can be minimized. Sourcing locally produced food would obviously reduce the transportation distance and hence the amount of fuel burnt but does this really mean that growing food items locally would reduce the overall carbon footprint of the planet.

Road transportation factor

The above analysis is further bolstered by the fact that food that is transported by road produces more carbon emissions than any other form of food transportation. On an overall scenario, transportation through road produces 60% of the world’s food transport carbon footprint. Transportation by air produces the highest carbon footprint per unit but considering the relatively lower volume this leads to only 20% of the world’s carbon emission towards food transport. The other modes like rail and sea transport produce 10% each of the world’s food transport carbon emissions

Production footprint factor

To put to rest this on-going debate on food miles, the “life-cycle” analysis of the food produce found that the transportation of food is responsible for only 11% of the greenhouse gas emissions related to the food supply of an average family. In contrast, the actual production of the food generates 83% of total emissions, while wholesaling and retailing account for about 5%. The results of life-cycle assessments for different products vary, of course, depending on a host of factors, including the environment in which the food is grown, the farming practices used to grow it, and the degree of processing it undergoes. The figures cited in the life-cycle analysis clearly establish that it is environmentally more sustainable to import food produce from places where they can be produced naturally rather than trying to grow them locally just with the objective of cutting down on the transportation distance. The food miles can be reduced by implementing more sustainable methods of farming and intelligent supply chain methods as opposed to the literal meaning of the term itself, which is a misnomer.

According to people of India,: "A cup of yogurt travels 2000 kms before it reaches a customer. Such food miles are unnecessary," said Vanaja Ramprasad, an organic farmer and bio-diversity expert, based in Bangalore. "Moving food and flowers across the gable merely add to carbon footprints and when global warming is a serious concern engaging governments, global imports of perishables is an issue that needs more serious research and analyses," she added.


I have carried out a survey wherein I interviewed people through a questionnaire to know their preferred choice of vegetables at supermarkets.

  • I visited two malls – Inorbit mall and Infinity 2 mall both in Malad, Mumbai. My main purpose to visit these malls is because of the presence of giant hypermarkets such as Big Bazaar and Star Bazaar.
  • Through secondary research, I gathered and analyzed data from the past which dealt with consumer taste and preferences for vegetables and other food items, in Mumbai.

Hypothesis: Through this research I can confidently say that the carbon emissions have been rising drastically through the last few decades due to food mile transportation. These carbon emissions lead to global warming which can be harmful for the environment. Thus having an eco-centric mindset, could enable us to drastically reduce or gradually stop consuming food products from outside the country of origin because this can help reduce global warming to a large extent.

Variable identification: In this assessment the independent variable is the temperature and the environment whereas the dependent variable is the transport facilities and engines leaving out harmful greenhouse gases such as carbon monoxide.

Independent variable: temperature

Dependent Variable: Transport Facilities and Engines

Advantages and Disadvantages of Food miles: The money earned from the crops can be utilized efficiently for children and as aid. Increases air pollution due to cars removing harmful gases, like global warming. Importing crops would be a great investment in the future. People stop eating the food items from their country of origin. Though the production or growth of food items from the country of origin is always fresher and has more antioxidants. Employs a larger segment of people, because all the fresh produce is being transported to other places. Countries being more prone to natural disasters.

Food miles in perspective

The concept of food miles, the distance food travels before being consumed, dates back to a 1994 report called “The Food Miles Report: The dangers of long-distance food transport”. At first glance reducing food miles seems an excellent way to reduce carbon emissions, because it limits emissions caused by planes, trucks, boats and trains moving food. But if you’re not careful cutting food miles can easily increase your food’s carbon footprint. The most important thing to remember about food miles is that they are only part of the bigger food emissions story. A person’s foodprint is actually dominated by production emissions, and food transport makes up just a tenth of food emissions up to the point of sale. A few different studies have verified this, perhaps the best of which is the 2008 paper by Weber and Matthews, Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Their analysis of US food emissions found 83% of carbon emissions in the food system result from food production, 5% from wholesaling and retailing food, and 11% from transporting it.

Perhaps most interestingly, just 4% of total emissions were final delivery transport from the producer to the retailer, which is what most people think of when they talk about food miles. The point is food miles are only a small part of a very large food emissions story, so focusing on them in isolation isn’t necessarily helpful if your goal is to cut your food print. In fact, what you eat is generally more important than where it comes from, as is how much you waste. The virtues of eating seasonally The problem of focusing purely on food miles to reduce emissions is easy enough to understand. The classic example is the much-loved tomato. In cooler climates like northern Europe, Canada and the north states of the US people eat tomatoes all year round, despite the local weather not being conducive to growing them. Winter tomatoes in these places are either hot housed locally, using significant amounts of energy, or imported from warmer climates like Spain or Mexico. When you analyse the respective carbon footprints of local and imported tomatoes it becomes clear that production emissions can easily dwarf transport emissions.

Despite travelling a greater distance Spanish tomatoes imported to Sweden have a far smaller footprint than locally grown ones. This is because the emissions generated to heat and light greenhouses in northern Europe far exceed the transport emissions of bringing tomatoes in from Spain. Similar results have been found when comparing out of season English tomatoes to Spanish imports, although there are also some noble exceptions to this rule. For example, both in Sweden and England it is possible to get winter tomatoes raised using waste heat, renewable energy and highly efficient hydroponic systems. So does this mean targeting food mile is a complete waste of time? Not completely. But if your motivation for eating more local food is carbon emissions, then it is better to try to eat seasonal local food.

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By eating food that is both in season and local you can be more certain that both production emissions and transport emissions are limited. You can often avoid them being refrigerated in stores too. Even more importantly, seasonal food just tastes so much better. Where I live in the UK eating a tomato or strawberry from Spain doesn’t taste anything like as sweet as one in season from a local farm. Not only are many imported varieties a bit bland to begin with, but they suffer from time in storage, being refrigerated and forced ripening.

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