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The fallacy of food miles

December 2006.

Food miles are becoming an increasingly important issue in the UK food sector, both organic and conventional.  However, a recent report by Prof Saunders from Lincoln University in New Zealand has been highly critical of food miles calling it “a very simplistic concept” and suggests, “it is misleading as it does not consider total energy use, especially in the production of the product”.  I argue that even a complete energy analysis is short of the mark and in addition, linking the food miles or other production issue with buying British produce is not rational and even worse it is anti-ecological and smacks of xenophobia.

Looking first at food miles, I agree with Prof Saunders; food miles are a totally nebulous concept, which is based on media sound bites and easy to grasp concepts that have no foundation in a rigorous analysis of the environmental sustainability of food production.  The main issue underlying food miles is the energy required to transport our food from field to plate most of which is from non-renewable, CO2 releasing fossil fuels.  However, the energy used in food transport is only part, often a small part, of the total energy required in the entire food production cycle, as shown by Prof Saunders.  To use a somewhat extreme example, the production of out of season tomatoes in the UK using heated glasshouses and nutrient film irrigation uses large amounts of fuel for the manufacture of the glasshouse, heating / lighting the crop and production of fertilizers to name the key energy sinks.  If the tomatoes were produced outdoors, in soil, in the southern hemisphere and transported to the UK, the total energy consumed of the field-grown crop would be much lower than the homegrown one, even though the transport energy (food miles) is far higher.  As Prof Saunders' report points out the total energy consumption of food production can be many times the amount used in transport.  This also applies for much less energy intensive production than hothouse tomatoes, to quote the report: “the UK uses twice as much energy per tonne of milk solids produced than NZ…  The energy used in producing lamb in the UK is four times higher than the energy used by NZ lamb producers...  NZ is also more energy efficient in producing and delivering apples to the UK market than the UK is.  NZ energy costs for production are a third of those in the UK” all these calculations include transport energy (NB these are figures for non-organic production systems).

However, energy is only one of many inputs into food production systems plus there are a range of outputs and outcomes apart than the food itself.  For example, there are impacts on soils, water bodies, nutrient cycles, local and regional cultures and ecosystems to name a few.  All of these, and many more, are often more important components of the environmental sustainability of both organic and non-organic production systems than the energy consumed by production and transport.  What is the point of choosing food because it used the least amount of energy during production if its production has resulted in massive soil degradation, social displacement and loss of ecosystem function compared with a second product that protects all of these but at a higher energy cost?  Not much in my view.  Food that is produced in an environmentally sustainable way must be measured by the total impact on the environment, not just energy consumed in production or even worse food miles. Unfortunately trying to measure the total environmental impact of food production is unbelievably difficult.  However, just because such budgets are difficult is no reason to substitute them with simple but fallacious concept of food miles.

Moving onto the ‘Buy British’ issue.  The fact that food miles is an erroneous concept and it has been adopted by the UK organic movement is a major disappointment, that it has then been linked to a buy British argument is truly harrowing.  Here’s why: a consumer in the southeast is closer to producers in northern France than Herefordshire.  If food miles / transport energy was a real concern then consumers in the southeast should boycott food from the northern UK and buy ‘Northern France’ instead.  The earth only has one boundary that matters; space. The biosphere is not aware of our petty national boundaries, birds migrate over them without a care and the carbon dioxide we have been pumping into the atmosphere is totally unconstrained by them.  If the organic movement is truly interested in the environmental impact of agriculture, it must not use un-environmental nationalistic arguments. If we consider it wrong to judge another human being on their race or sex is it not just as wrong to favour people because of where they live?  To me it’s just another form of xenophobia.  So please, lets dump the daft idea of food miles, engage in a far more rigorous analysis of the environmental impact of agricultural production and expunge the anti-ecological and xenophobic ‘Buy British’ campaign.

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Copyright 2008 Charles N. Merfield.