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Food Miles- A Green Wash

Food miles is an inadequate indicator of sustainability- so what are the different factors involved and what is the implication for Indian food exporters? Read more in this latest article in the 'Sustainable Consumption' series.

Locally sourced material does not necessarily have lower food miles
Food TruckThe conventional argument given by environment champions is that longer the transportation distance read food miles, the more is the energy consumed leading to burning of more fossil fuel and consequently leading to emission of more GHGs into the air, which causes global warming. The obvious logical solution provided by such environment campaigners is to source food from a nearby place so that the distance traversed from the point of origin to the point of consumption can be minimized. Sourcing locally produced food would obviously reduce the transportation distance and hence the amount of fuel burnt but does this really mean that growing food items locally would reduce the overall carbon footprint of the planet.

Though the above rationale may seem the obvious one, it is definitely not the most logical solution to reducing food-miles. As defined by Wikipedia, ‘food miles’ are the number of miles a product has to be transported from the farmer/grower through various stages of production until it reaches the supermarket and finally the plate of the consumer. Food-miles is the sum total of the distances traversed by all the components that goes into the bringing of the food items onto our plate.

Take the example of UK and New Zealand, which most believe have the same climatic conditions and land suitable for similar farming activities. New Zealand, in particular is well known for its farm produce with the EU countries being one of its biggest markets. The huge geographical separation of New Zealand from Europe means the products that are imported have to travel a very large distance hence making the apparent food miles high.

Grazing CowsGoing by the classic definition of food miles, the above logic seems to hold water but if we look at the broader definition and the components that go into the calculation of it, the above logic fails. A thorough analysis reveals that it is in fact more sustainable to import food items into Europe from New Zealand rather than producing them in situ. New Zealand has far greater production efficiency in many food commodities when compared to UK and the arable land there is more fertile as compared to that in Europe. As a result of this, a New Zealand farmer can grow the same amount of agriculture produce by using less fertilizer, which in turn means lesser amount of energy to produce and hence cause significant lowering in the corresponding CO2 emissions. Additionally, owing to the fertile soil, the animals in New Zealand are able to graze year-round eating home-grown grass while the European dairy farms have to import animal feeds which further adds-up to the overall food mile matrix.

UK based Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) concluded from a study that eating ‘local grown’ food does not necessarily yield environmental benefits. The dominant mode of intra-national food transport is by trucking products from the Central Distribution Centres to the suppliers and supermarkets. Going by the concept of ‘economies of scale’, moving groceries in large volume reduces the environmental impact per unit of food, since a single trip involves transportation of large quantities. On the contrary, the local farmers may though have to travel fewer miles to deliver their goods to the market, but they do so in smaller vehicles thus making repeated trips, which effectively increases the carbon emission per unit quantity.

Road transportation factor
The above analysis is further bolstered by the fact that food that is transported by road produces more carbon emissions than any other form of food transportation. On an overall scenario, transportation through road produces 60% of the world’s food transport carbon footprint. Transportation by air produces the highest carbon footprint per unit but considering the relatively lower volume this leads to only 20% of the world’s carbon emission towards food transport. The other modes like rail and sea transport produce 10% each of the world’s food transport carbon emissions. One major off-take from the analysis  is the fact that since food produce from New Zealand is transported through ship to Europe, the overall carbon emissions get further reduced compared to food produce which is transported within Europe and use Road or Air as the preferred mode of transport.

Production footprint factor
To put to rest this on-going debate on food miles, the “life-cycle” analysis of the food produce found that the transportation of food is responsible for only 11% of the greenhouse gas emissions related to the food supply of an average family. In contrast, the actual production of the food generates 83% of total emissions, while wholesaling and retailing account for about 5%. The results of life-cycle assessments for different products vary, of course, depending on a host of factors, including the environment in which the food is grown, the farming practices used to grow it, and the degree of processing it undergoes.

The figures cited in the life-cycle analysis  clearly establish that it is environmentally more sustainable to import food produce from places where they can be produced naturally rather than trying to grow them locally just with the objective of cutting down on the transportation distance. The food miles can be reduced by implementing more sustainable methods of farming and intelligent supply chain methods as opposed to the literal meaning of the term itself, which is a misnomer. 

Indian food exporters be prepared
Drawing a parallel to the Indian context, the export of fresh agricultural produce and packaged food industry is picking steam. According to Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), exports of agricultural products from India are expected to reach US$ 22 billion mark by 2014 and account for 5% of the world’s agriculture exports. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved of the highest number of food processing plants in India outside of the USA, which stands testimony to the fact that India is well poised to be the next destination for global food produce. Given the potential the sector holds for India and the likely push back from protectionists in the importing markets, it is imperative that the Indian Industry is prepared to counter any clamour on these grounds

The author, Sandeep Roy, is an Associate at cKinetics, a venture accelerator catalyzing rapid adoption of low carbon sustainable growth practices in emerging economies through technology transfer, capital access and adaptation interventions.


Images courtesy:
E. Bartholomew
dcysurfer / Dave Young