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  Riverford sustainable development project


food miles?

The “?” is because I am never really sure what is meant by the term ' food miles'.


Many people use 'food miles' as a shorthand to express a general discomfort with the global transport of food and the associated environmental and social impact.  As with so many ethical and environmental issues the issues are complex; the distance travelled from field to door is a very poor indicator of the environmental impact of food, and then there are the broader issues of the social benefits trade can deliver.


Some reasons why the use of 'food miles' is not useful:

  • It takes no account of the huge variance in greenhouse gas emissions between different forms of transport.  Click here for more on these.
  • It takes no account of the volume of food a vehicle is carrying; the most damaging stage in food's journey from farm to doorstep is usually the relatively short, final stage from retailer to home, usually by car.
  • It takes no account of whether a food can be grown locally; most people profess a preference for locally sourced food but purchasing behaviour suggests a limited appetite for compromises.  Bananas, citrus and a twelve month supply tomatoes, peppers and apples are not going to be grown locally –and are now viewed as non-negotiable essentials by most households.
  • It takes no account of different levels of environmental impact resulting from growing in different areas; long season tomatoes grown locally using heat can be more than ten times as damaging as those trucked from Southern Europe Click here for more on glasshouse tomatoes.
  • It takes no account of the potential benefits of exports to developing countries; food exports can be the only route out of poverty for some developing countries.  Using food miles as a justification for cutting off trade while we fly off on exotic holidays is hard to explain to a small scale Ugandan pineapple grower struggling to buy basic medicines for his children. 

As a means of determining which foods are good and bad for our planet, 'food miles' are too simplistic a measure.  The term has had the virtue of harnessing public opinion and stimulating debate over what food can be delivered at an acceptable environmental cost but sensible decisions need to be guided by a more sophisticated measures.


Riverford's transport emissions

We import relatively little produce (around 80% of box contents over the year are home grown) and we never airfreight.  Transport from grower's gate to doorstep accounts for 60% of our total emissions (click here to find out what makes up the rest):  21% is the result of imports (ships 15% and trucks 6%) and 39% UK transport (lorries 13% and vans 26%).


Fifteen years running a box scheme have convinced me that it is futile to take a hard 'local only' line; customers will either leave in droves or will simply top up at the supermarket. 


The purpose of this part of our study has been first to understand the environmental impact of the transport we are responsible for, and then to find ways of reducing it while still providing an acceptable variety of fruit and vegetables.


We would like to use the information we have gathered to help customers understand the environmental impact of their purchases without making them feel guilty about every banana.