The term “food miles” has been around since 1994, when it was first used to describe how far our food travels from its source to its final destination in our homes and on our tables. It was coined to reflect a growing awareness of the impact that transporting food around the globe was having on the environment. And while there is a lot more awareness today than there was back then, the question of what to do about it offers no easy solution.
Farm to Store
Our eating habits are global. We expect to find avocados and mangos at the local grocery store. We expect to be able to eat our favorite food all year round. After all, it will always be in season somewhere in the world. But, as every mile an item travels increases the level of carbon emissions, the obvious solution may seem to be to stop importing food from far off places. The so-called locavore movement is all about trying to encourage people to buy more food that is produced locally. And while that can help, the situation is more complex.
More than just Food Miles
The problem is that food miles are not the only thing that harm the environment. Transportation needs to be seen in relation to the whole process of food production. For example, choosing locally grown apples seems to make sense. But for apples to be available outside their natural growing season they need to be kept refrigerated, some for almost a year until the new crop arrives. The impact of providing continuous refrigeration can be as bad as importing fresh produce.
Having said that, it isn’t an argument against buying locally which with many foods is the more sustainable option. It is important to keep the bigger picture in mind. And sometimes doing what seems counter-intuitive can actually be the best course of action.
Store to Table
If you do choose the more sustainable options, whether imported or locally grown, you can easily undo all the benefits when you go shopping. We often overlook the food miles involved in driving to the store and back again. Although the journey may be short, it will be repeated regularly, most often by a single driver with a few sacks of groceries in each car.
Again, there is an argument here for shopping locally and simply cutting down the miles. It might even make it practical to ditch the car and walk or take public transport, depending on how much you need to carry. If there is a farmer’s market nearby this will give you the chance to buy local goods directly from the producer.
Have it delivered
The other possibility is to have your groceries delivered. As well as being convenient, it can be a more sustainable option. Although the van has to drive many more miles, it delivers a lot more food per mile. This could be shopping online with a major supermarket, or through a local producer, farm, or market garden. Some small producers offer customers a subscription scheme where you get a weekly box of produce delivered. The contents usually vary depending on what is in season. Many buyers like the surprise element of not knowing exactly what will be in the box till they open it.
Make an informed choice
While there are exceptions, buying local is usually a good way to lessen our carbon footprint as is finding a more sustainable alternative to the weekly supermarket run. And while we can’t always get it right, as long as we keep ourselves informed and choose consciously, we are likely to make the best decision, most of the time.