‘Food miles’ is a concept that has been picking up a big following over the last few years. It’s a simple way to choose food based on the greenhouse gases generated by its transportation- food miles are the distance that an item of food has travelled from production to your plate. Food grown locally will generally have a much lower carbon footprint, while food shipped or flown from overseas will have much greater emissions.
A report by CERES estimates that the average basket of food purchased in Melbourne will have been transported a total of of 70,803 km, nearly two times the circumference of the earth. That’s some big greenhouse emissions. No wonder the environmentally conscious among us have started counting their food miles. There’s some nice secondary benefits to this too- strengthening local economies by supporting small farms, local jobs and local shops.
Become a locavore
It’s easy. Read the labels on food you buy to see where it’s produced and choose products that are made locally, particularly those that are refrigerated as these require even more energy. Source food from your community; such as from local farmers markets, box schemes, community gardens, food co-ops and Community Supported Agriculture groups (such as Food Connect). Better still, source food from your own backyard if you have one, and share and swap with friends. Where possible, eat foods that suit the local climate and are in season, it means they’re less likely to have travelled far to get to your shopping bag. Why not get some exercise and ride your bike to the markets? And when you do need to use your car, save some time by planning for bigger, less frequent shopping trips.
Is there more to it than that?
Of course, like any concept that challenges people to think about what they eat, the nay-sayers have come out to play. Having had a long stint as vegetarian, I have on many occasions been shocked by the reaction that people have had to my own personal choice on what I eat. People get really worked up when you suggest they put more thought into what they eat, even if you’re just quietly leading by example. These food-mile nay-sayers do have some good points though, triggered by some selected life-cycle assessments on certain food products, some that even showed that locally grown products could have a bigger carbon footprint than imported products, you know, like tomatoes grown in a heated greenhouse producing more carbon emissions than those imported to the UK. (Mind you, these case studies were spruiked by agricultural and trade ministers and others with a vested interest in free trade).
Measuring food miles doesn’t take into account all of the greenhouse emissions involved in getting that food to your plate. There are other things to consider, such as such as the energy used in seeding and harvest, processing, packaging, storage, shopping and even food preparation. These sorts of things can be accurately assessed in a life-cycle assessment of a product, a rigorous method of assessing all of the resources and energy that go into producing a particular product, essentially giving us its environmental footprint. When we’re shopping at our local shop or market, we can’t exactly carry out one of these life-cycle assessments, can we? Of course we can’t. But we can make some informed choices based on the basic information that is available to us.
It’s common sense really
I’ll give these more attention in later posts, but some obvious things to think about when considering the whole life cycle of the food you buy, in addition to the distance it has travelled are:
- Packaging – the less the better. Less energy to produce it and less waste when you’re finished with it.
- Processing – again, the less the better. Locally grown fresh garlic is going to have a lower carbon footprint than that packaged, preserved and refrigerated garlic from the supermarket.
- Locally suitable. This might require a few questions to your local grower at first, or a little bit of background of research, but basically the harder it is to grow in your backyard the bigger the footprint its likely to have. Think fertilisers, pesticides, water consumption, and energy.
At the end of the day, it’s about comparing apples to apples. That is, fresh, locally grown, organic, in season apples versus imported, genetically modified, dehydrated, packaged and preserved apples. It’s not a hard choice, is it?