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  Riverford sustainable development project


'food miles':  decisions about sourcing

When I visit friends who take one of our boxes I normally sneak a look in their fridge.  Almost invariably I find that even the hardcore greens are topping up with additional imports through the winter. We all love the idea of eating locally and many talk the talk in public but very few are walking the walk at home. The huge majority  find eating entirely within the limits of our climate just too constraining, onerous and at times boring. We do our best to inform and enthuse about what is in season and to provide the widest range our climate will allow, and have championed many little-eater UK veg.  We know that taking a weekly box signficantly alters how many customers cook and and eat, but our power to persuade has limits. We will go on campaigning for jerusalem artichokes and spring greens, but accept that it is our job at Riverford to provide an acceptable range in the boxes with the minimum environmental impact. In order to make intelligent and informed compromises we have spent the last year researching the environmental impact of everything that we import.


Transport of imported fruits and vegetables from the farms where they are produced to Riverford accounts for 21% of our carbon footprint. This is made up of 15% shipping (mainly for fruits from outside Europe) and 6% road transport (mainly fruit and vegetables from southern Europe through the winter and spring). I had expected the figure to be higher. A number of factors have kept it down:


1.     We do not use air freight which causes 40 to 50 times the CO2 emissions of sea freight.

2.     We ship rather than use road (3 times worse than sea freight) where possible.

3.     When we do import by road the lorries are always full and are nearly always back-loaded (i.e. not travelling empty at any stage).

4.     Almost 80% of what we grow is home grown; much higher than for any supermarket and most box schemes.


how produce travels is as important as how far it travels

For every kilometer that food travels the relative greenhouse gas emissions are:


1               for deep sea freight    

2               for short sea freight

6.5            for HGV, and

40 -100    for airfreight

Importing oranges, peppers or tomatoes from Morocco by sea (Agadir to Portsmouth) is remarkably benign, generating around 62 gCO2 per kg transported to Riverford.


Bananas coming by sea the huge distance from the Dominican Republic produce 172 gCO2/kg compared with 263 gCO2/kg caused by trucking produce from Spain!


the Riverford carbon calculator

For every supplier of every product from around the world we have worked out the distance traveled by road and sea and calculated the associated CO2 emitted in the journey to Riverford. The graph below shows a selection.

what are we doing about it?

1.     No airfreight.  There may be occasions were the environmental cost is justified by the development benefit but these are rare. We might in the future consider airfreight of high value dried fruits from small producers we are involved with in land locked Uganda.   

2.     Maximizing the use of shipping; e.g. from Morocco by sea rather than road.

3.     Carbon calculator; thinking about where we buy from; long-term strategy with suppliers. See carbon calculator below.

4.     Arranging production as close as is climatically possible; with this in mind from 2010 we will be growing some of the vegetables we cannot grow in Devon in the Vendee region of France which is less than 300 road miles from Riverford but benefits from fantastic sunlight and a mild maritime climate that greatly extends the season.

5.     Encouraging customers to eat with the seasons as an informed choice; continuing to enthuse about what is available locally while pointing out the environmental costs of imports. In spring 08, on an experimental basis, we are informing customers of the CO2 emissions associated with the import of the produce in each box each week. I am advised that this partial carbon foot printing will be a marketing shot in the foot. It demands  a level of interest and understanding that goes beyond the black/white, good/bad choices favoured in marketing, and aparently anything potentially guilt-inducing is bad tactics. We are not suggesting that our customers eat no imports but we would like them to have a broad understanding of the impact of their choices while we worry about the detail of making those impacts as small as possible.  We will see how it works out.


carbon calculator - it's all about informed choices


We have created a program based on our research which, every week when we work out what to put in the boxes, will calculate the cost in carbon as well as cash.  It is making us think long and hard about what goes in the boxes both on a weekly basis and in the long-term.  There is now a very real pressure within the business to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through informed buying.  This is the right thing to be doing now from an environmental perspective.  As energy prices rise I am confident that this will eventually be reflected in the cash costs. 

Not surprisingly, the fruit and veg box, aimed at households who struggle to cope with our more farm-based, seasonal boxes, has easily the highest sourcing emissions while the more seasonal, home grown boxes tend to have the lowest.  For us it has been interesting how large the impact of a single item can sometimes be on the footprint of a single box and it is these items that we are first working on replacing.


For our customers we will make these ratings available on the main Riverford website, alongside the predicted box contents, to allow informed choices to be made.  An example of the ratings scale is shown below.  To give these some context, a box sourced entirely from our farm would score around 8gCO2/kg and one sourced entirely from South Africa, by sea, would hit 300gCO2/kg, at the top of the scale.