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Case Study: Food miles

What are food miles?

Food miles are the measure of the distance a food travels from field to plate. Agriculture and food now account for nearly 30 per cent of goods transported on our roads.


This travel adds substantially to the carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to climate change - which is why food miles matter. A report by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that food miles rose by 15 per cent between 1992 and 2002.


Why does our food travel so far?

Food travels further these days partly because the centralised systems of supermarkets have taken over from local and regional markets. A pint of milk or a crop of potatoes can be transported many miles to be packaged at a central depot and then sent many miles back to be sold near where they were produced in the first place.


Then there’s imported produce. Ninety-five per cent of the fruit and half of the vegetables in the UK are imported. The amount of food being flown into the UK doubled in the 1990s and is predicted to rise further each year. To take one example, strawberries are flown in from warmer climates to satisfy our desire for permanent dietary summertime, and air freight has a far bigger impact on the environment than sea or road travel has.


Another reason for mounting food miles is comparative labour costs. For example, some British fish is now sent to China (where labour costs are much lower) for processing, then sent back to the UK to be sold.


Consumers are also directly responsible for increased food miles. We now travel further for our shopping and use the car more often to do it. Each year, the average UK adult travels about 135 miles by car to shop for food, more often than not making trips to large, out of town supermarkets.


Food miles and animal welfare.

The transport of live animals is an important animal welfare issue. The numbers of animals being hauled around the country have grown with the trend for large, centralised abattoirs and meat-processing plants. Animals are also exported and imported to and from other countries. For consumers, there is also the question of quality. Freshly picked fruit and vegetables are better nutritionally, as well as having more taste.