It’s no secret that grub doesn’t grow in your fridge, freezers and cupboards. Well, at least not most of the time.
This Modern Milkman guide reveals the secrets of how grub goes from planes and freights to forks and plates, answering the all-important questions like, what are food miles? And why do they matter?
Because after all, The Proclaimers may be prepared to walk a thousand miles to fall at your door, but your food shouldn’t have to.
WHAT ARE FOOD MILES?
Food miles are the distance between where food’s made, grown or baked and where it’s eaten. In other words, how far it’s travelled to get to your plate. This includes transport between cultivation, shipping, processing, factories and shops.
Produce comes from all over the world these days, with supermarket aisles boasting more location stamps than a guitar-wielding backpacker’s passport.
Wine can arrive from the Riviera to Richmond in a matter of hours, while fresh lemons can be on a train from Italy to Ipswich in less than a day. But emission-spouting gas guzzlers travelling thousands of miles to deliver food is far from ideal.
- – Half of the UK’s veggies are imported, while 95% of fruit comes from abroad (Pollution Issues).
- – 76% of apples eaten in the UK arrive from overseas (The Guardian).
- – Sugar snap peas release more than 4,500g of greenhouse gases during their journey from Guatemala to the UK (The Guardian).
- – The UK imports roughly 350,000 tonnes of spuds per year (British Potato Council).
- – 70% of the fish we eat in the UK comes from abroad (The Guardian).
- – Despite only 1% of food arriving by plane, air travel accounts for 11% of the UK’s food transport emissions (Pollution Issues). This is the least sustainable importation method.
HOW ARE FOOD MILES CALCULATED?
Calculating food miles is no easy feat, with produce transported on everything from boats and planes to trucks and trains.
The average food item travels 1,837 miles before it’s eaten in the UK, according to foodmiles.com, which gives you a handy free food miles calculator to work out the distance your food travels.
Food miles don’t just include the journey before the supermarket shelves. They also consider the distance you cover to bring it home, with the average Brit driving 135 miles a year to shop for food (Schudio). That’s about the same distance between Manchester and Cheltenham!
As well as the CO2 emissions from transportation, some people also include the energy used to produce, store and process produce when measuring food miles.
WHAT ARE THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF HIGH FOOD MILES?
If romantic comedies have taught us anything, it’s that long distance doesn’t work. Global food miles are responsible for three billion tonnes of CO2 emissions each year (Carbon Brief).
Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture (Our World in Data), yet a fifth of food’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from transportation. High food miles equal high emissions, which can leave the planet at an all-time low.
How do food miles affect our carbon footprint?
Importing food into the UK emits nineteen million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year (Science in Society). This has a pretty hefty impact on the nation’s carbon footprint.
Much like the rusty banger you drove in college, if food has a lot of miles on the clock, it’s not going to end well. That’s because the further your food travels to get to your plate, the larger its carbon footprint.
However, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Our pals at The Nature Conservancy define a carbon footprint as the “total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.”
This includes more than just food miles. Some foods grown here in the UK actually have higher carbon footprints than those shipped from abroad due to factors like the energy used in production (for example, heating greenhouses for exotic fruits) and the plastic waste left by packaging.
WHY DOES THE UK IMPORT SO MUCH FOOD?
Supply chains and food production play a huge role in how far your grub travels. Why does the UK import food? Well, ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw an avocado or banana tree on your travels?
Here are some factors that influence UK food miles:
- – Seasonality – While some produce can be cultivated all year round overseas, a lot of what we grow here in the UK changes alongside the various seasons’ conditions. This means products like strawberries sometimes have to travel from afar unless you decide to reduce food miles by eating seasonally.
- – Climate – Not everything can be made or grown here in the UK, which means it has to be transported from abroad.
- – Price and shelf life – Food with a limited shelf life is often transported by air freight. While this may be more convenient and cheaper for supermarkets and food providers, it comes with a heavy environmental cost.
- – Larger heavy goods vehicles (HGV) – while these can store more food, they tend to be less fuel efficient and emit more nasty emissions. Food accounted for a quarter of all HGV mileage as far back as 2002. And in the many years since, that figure is only likely to have increased.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF FEWER FOOD MILES?
There are plenty of reasons why shorter food transportation is miles better than importing food from afar. Not only is more locally produced food more beneficial to the planet, but it’s also often tastier and fresher.
Fewer food miles help to create a more sustainable chain, protecting the future of our economy, energy efficiency and planet. Benefits include:
- – Supporting British farming and UK suppliers.
- – Fewer greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from trains, planes and automobiles.
- – Health benefits, with nutritional value normally at its highest straight after cultivation and harvesting.
- – Fresher, tastier, higher quality food, with produce less likely to be dropped or bashed around in transport.
- – Less chance of contamination on shorter supply chains than on lengthier, cross-continental journeys.
- – A more varied diet is an inevitability when your meals change and evolve through the flow of the seasons.
- – Better biodiversity and ecosystems, with a focus on healthy soil and productive farming.
How can the UK reduce its food miles?
The UK is perfectly capable of growing its sustainable produce, and this is a key part of lowering food miles and therefore emissions.
Britain’s collective food miles (and carbon footprint) would be reduced if shops stocked more British products and followed initiatives that focus on high production standards with a low impact on the planet.
If Disney can give a man who has the powers of an ant a solid origin story, there’s no reason why supermarkets can’t do it with your canned tuna and minced beef. The more info consumers have about where their food comes from, the better we can all lower our food miles.
Real change comes from legends like you, who are already doing the research and looking for ways to positively affect the environment.
HOW CAN YOU REDUCE YOUR FOOD MILES?
We thought you’d never ask! Reducing food miles is all about buying seasonal, UK-grown food whenever possible, and avoiding food waste like a dog turd on the pavement.
Here are ten ways you can instantly reduce your food miles:
1. 1. Grab a bargain from apps like Too Good to Go to avoid needless food waste in your favourite restaurants and takeaways.
2. 2. Grow your own vegetables from scraps and leftovers. It doesn’t get more local than that!
3. 3. Avoid food waste with our sustainable recipes. That way, you avoid any wasted food miles.
4. 4. Swap a pesky drive to the shop for plastic-free doorstep grocery deliveries. Our milk round is rooted in efficiency, and we don’t just deliver early doors to ensure your food arrives in time for brekky. Don’t get us wrong, that’s a key factor, but we also do it so that our drivers aren’t stuck in fuel-absorbing traffic. The only jams on our milk round are the ones you put on our tasty sourdough bloomers!
5. 5. Read food labels on your weekly shop and try to avoid produce shipped from overseas.
6. 6. Buy seasonal fruit and veg grown recently in the UK. Check out National Trust’s guide to learn what’s in season at the moment.
7. 7. Shop for products made by independent British suppliers.
8. 8. Support local businesses, like your friendly neighbourhood butcher, florist and farmers’ markets.
9. 9. When you do need to go to the shop, try a gentle stroll rather than a traffic-filled drive. Food miles don’t count if you use your feet!
10. 10. Avoid back-and-forth drives to convenience stores; these food miles soon add up. Rather than forgetting or running out of everyday essentials, get them delivered when you need them on our green milk round.
Join our milkround
If you’re looking for ways to reduce waste at home, check out our new milk and food products. We keep supply chains as short as Mini Me’s Mini Me and deliver a whole range of eco-conscious products directly to your front door, up to three times a week. Find out more about how it works over here and get ready to enjoy a glass of quality British milk.