Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Comment Is Free: Food Miles – What a load of b*****ks! by Jim Crowder

Charlie and Rory's Food Blog has now thrown the floodgates open to our hordes of followers, letting them bring their ruminations on all matters food to the verbal table, (ba-dum-tshish). Here Jim Crowder offers a fresh and interesting new perspective on the media cliche of 'food miles'..

Way back in the dim and distant, I was employed as an environmental analyst in the energy industry. This meant I spent my time calculating the environmental impact of various projects and options for generating energy for the UK. During the 1979 general election, I had the dubious pleasure to meet the chairman of the Ecology Party, the predecessor to the Green Party. He had little comprehension of the idea of environmental impact assessments, and suggested that gut feeling was more important than rigorous analysis in these matters. Therefore he was in favour of expansion of coal power because he felt comfortable with it. When I raised the issue of pollution he wasn't impressed because as far as he was concerned we had been burning coal for a long time and there was plenty left!

The reason I bring this up is to illustrate that a narrow view of issues can often lead to startlingly wrong conclusions. A few years later, awareness of fossil fuel pollution grew (acid rain and CO2), and we started to plan our future. I see the same narrow mindedness in the idea of food miles. This is an idea that has developed out of localism (which requires a whole different article) and has no real relevance to any kind of environmental impact.

Let me put it this way. A 40 tonne lorry will burn a gallon of fuel every 8 miles or so, a 1 tonne van will burn a gallon every 30 miles or so. So, at the average farmers' market a stallholder might come 15 miles and sell say 100kg of produce, then they have used 10 gallons per tonne of food (not counting the tractor usage and fertiliser and everything else). A lorry delivering to your local Asda will be fully loaded and deliver say 30 tonnes on a 60 mile trip. This is 0.5 gallons per tonne, a significant difference.

Aha, I hear you say. What about getting the food to the depot to start with? Well, again it is managed in large quantities (I now work in the food industry so have first hand experience), this leads to similar efficiencies, so you've got to work very hard to use up that extra fuel. Anyhow, supermarkets make their profits out of economies of scale.

The final clincher is you, the customer. How far do you drive to your farmers' market in addition to your weekly trip to the supermarket? How much do you buy, and how fuel efficient is your car?