Food miles has become an eco buzz term, but what does it really mean for consumers and the environment?
Here’s some food for thought: your beef has itchy feet and your white bread has the wanderlust. According to new research by Melbourne environmental organisation CERES, your pantry has seen far more of Australia, and the world, than you have.
On the way to your waistline, a typical Australian food basket pounds the highway for over 21 000 kilometres, the equivalent of nearly twice around our coast. And that’s just road transport. Including travel by sea and air, your dinner covers over 70 000 clicks: almost twice around the globe.
We’re talking about food miles, a concept that has become entrenched in the minds of environmentally conscious consumers in Europe, North America, and increasingly, Australia.
The argument goes like this: if you eat food grown closer to where you live, it needs less transportation and therefore, causes fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The twin threats of climate change and peak oil are looming large on our horizon, but buying low-energy local food can help stave off the disaster. Sounds straight forward, right?
Unfortunately not. Even Sophie Gaballa, the co-author of the CERES research, isn’t sold on the idea. “Food miles is only one part of the full life cycle assessment of food. It isn’t everything; there’s also lot of energy going into production”, she says.
But Gaballa believes that despite this criticism, being aware of the food we buy is an important part of an environmentally friendly lifestyle. “Waste, water and energy issues are pretty well established [in the public mindset] and food miles is linked with all those things. It’s a good next step in looking at sustainability.”
Among the products she surveyed, the worst offender was Danish pork sausages clocking in at over 25 000 kilometres. Chocoholics despair, your guilty pleasure weighs in at a chunky 14 500 kilometres. In the fresh fruit and veggie aisle, lettuces were the best at only 54 kilometres and bananas the worst, notching up 2746 long kilometres in the journey south from North Queensland.
If you’re looking for a low carbon diet, there’s now even a restaurant that can help you shed those excess kilos – kilometres, that is. The 100 Mile Café, in Melbourne Central, sources nine out of ten products from within 100 miles (160 kilometres) of the CBD. Ballarat is in but Ararat is out, Euroa yes but Echuca no.
The café’s ingredients list makes quirky reading: blueberries from Foster, rabbit from Lara, horseradish from Alexandra, eel from Skipton and walnuts from Bannockburn, just to name a few. According to restaurateur Paul Mathis, the closest product they source right now is spinach from Werribee South, just 30 kilometres away.
The ‘Locavores’, four women from San Francisco, coined the 100-mile slogan when they brought food miles issues to the table in 2005. They attracted media coverage in spades by challenging their bay-area neighbours to only eat food from within a 100-mile radius for the whole month of August that year. The movement’s popularity has grown and last year’s challenge, held in September, had thousands of participants from all over the USA.
For the Locavores, eating locally is not just about reducing our impact on the environment; it’s also about “our health, our communities and our tastebuds”. They believe local food tastes better and contains more nutrients. Your local dollar will also help revive the sagging fortunes of smaller farms and stimulate a sense of connectedness with your surroundings.
Across the Atlantic, UK retailers are leading the food miles race. Supermarket chain Tesco has begun work on a product labelling system to inform customers about the carbon footprint of each purchase. In March last year, the department store Marks and Spencer began special labelling for food imported by air. The company has also committed itself to sourcing as much food as possible from within the UK and Ireland.
This is when things start to get a little tricky. Australia is a significant agricultural producer: grain, beef and wine are our top three agricultural exports. In the year ending July 2007, these exports were worth a staggering $12.7 billion – more than triple our international aid contribution. Our farmers and our economy have a lot to lose if the Brits take exclusively to local fare.
Chief executive of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, Stephen Strachan, says that although there hasn’t been any impact on Australian wine exports to the UK just yet, “it’s pretty obvious it’s coming”. Strachan says he completely supports people’s desire to purchase eco-friendly products, but he argues that while carbon emissions are important, “so are issues like water use, efficiency and biodiversity…yet food miles doesn’t recognise the initiatives we’ve undertaken in those areas”.
For now, the Australian retailers are not pushing the same barrow as their UK counterparts. Coles spokesman, Jim Cooper, says that the supermarket chain is aware of the debate and also conscious of the “differing views of food miles as an environmental impact measure”. He says that “food labelling issues such as food miles are best addressed at an industry and government level, with representatives from all interested parties”. As it stands, Australian consumers are unlikely to see the miles on our aisles any time soon.
According to Steve Dowrick, Head of Economics at the Australian National University, our economy and the environment are not the only things to consider. “The other issue, which I think this type of debate seems to forget about, is what the impact would be on the producers of foodstuffs in developing countries,” he says.
“I’m concerned about carbon emissions, but I’m also concerned about the hundreds of millions of people in the world living in absolute abject poverty and with very low life expectancy and very high rates of illness and infant mortality”. Dowrick says that while trade isn’t a panacea for global poverty, it is a key part of the solution. “To cut down trade with the people who are already in hopelessly miserable poverty would make them even worse off”, he argues.
Dowrick is not saying it is wrong to buy local food, but suggests that if you are concerned about poverty as well as the environment you should consider the impact of not buying products from the third world. “People have to make their own minds up”, he says. “We would like them to have adequate information so they can come to the right judgement about what is most important to them.”
With such complex and conflicting priorities, finding the right information is a hard road to hoe. So what’s an eco-friendly consumer to do?
Tim Grant is working on the answers. He’s the manager of life cycle assessment at RMIT University’s Centre for Design. His team looks at the environmental impact of products all the way from the paddock to the plate. They don’t just assess transport emissions, but also the effects of production, processing and packaging.
Grant doesn’t think consumers should ignore the food miles debate altogether. “Food miles are a great way to begin a conversation,” he says. “We find out transport is maybe five or ten percent of the environmental impact. Then what’s all the other stuff? In food, it’s the use of land and fertilizer. Well, what are those things connected to? How can we reduce those?” he asks.
Grant says we need to compare the energy used to transport fresh produce against the energy eaten up by packaged goods and products grown products locally in unsuitable climates. His advice is that “your first priority would be to eat seasonal foods and then to work down from there. It’s a really ripe area for some research, excuse the pun.”
Gaballa also has some tips for the consumer who wants to make a difference. “Perhaps try to buy local food, eat in season or grow food in your own backyard if can. You could look at joining a food-co-op or visiting farmers markets. If there are organic options available and it’s affordable then that is ideal.”
Community education is a major goal at CERES; every year, over 60 000 students visit its site on the Merri Creek in East Brunswick. Gaballa has now added food miles issues to its education programmes. She hopes that her research will prompt people to consider where their food is coming from. “How is it grown? Is it something you want to know more about?” she says.
“I was teaching about organic farming and a student was looking at our carrot beds quite intently and said ‘How long before you start to see the carrots hanging off the branches?’ And it just hit me that we don’t know what food looks like when it grows”, Gaballa says. “But how would you know how a carrot grows? Because as far as the kids are concerned, carrots come from the supermarket.”
Seasonal fruit and veggies in Melbourne
Spring: asparagus, broad beans, chives, broccoli, parsnip, rhubarb, shallots, strawberries.
Summer: apricots, beans, beetroot, capsicum, cherries, chives, chillies, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, garlic, grapes, leeks, melons, peaches, plums, potatoes, raspberries, rhubarbs, shallots, squash, strawberries, tomatoes, zucchinis, basil.
Autumn: beetroot, cauliflower, grapes, garlic, leeks, parsnip, peas, pears, potato, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato, chestnuts, walnuts.
Winter: broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, leeks, mandarins, oranges, parsnip, peas, spinach, chestnuts.
All year round: apples, carrots celery, grapefruit, lemons, lettuce, spring onion, onion, radish, silver beet, parsley.