Fair miles – recharting the food miles map

Kelly Rae Chi, James MacGregor and Richard King: Fair miles – recharting the food miles map, iied and Oxfam, 46 pages, ISBN 978-1-84369-761-9.

The International Institute for Environment and Development has produced this little booklet with Oxfam to start a debate on whether food miles is the only or even the most appropriate consideration to take into account when purchasing food. This is an important debate as more and more consumers become aware that their food purchases have environmental, social and economic consequences – climate change, trade with poor farmers in the developing countries, etc.

The authors points out that showing food miles on a package does not tell the whole story, not even how much greenhouse gases have been released in its production. Most consumers will think that food produced locally will have less greenhouse gases emitted than food produced abroad. According to Defra (the UK government department for food) some foods (like strawberries and tomatoes) use more fossil fuel when produced in the UK rather than in Spain, even when the food is flown to the UK. This is because the UK producers use fossil fuel to warm their greenhouses, in fertilisers, etc. Nitrogen fertiliser is especially demanding of fossil fuels, as producing one tonne of it takes 1.5 tonnes of oil.

This well-written booklet does not advocate having a CO2e label on food giving the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted in its production from cradle to grave (clearing the land, seeding, harvesting, food storage, transport, distribution centre, processing, catering, consumption and waste disposal). Instead it encourages the consumer to consider all the relevant aspects of what the authors call 'fair miles'.

Fair miles obviously includes the aspect of CO2e emissions (including for fertilisers), but advocates also including soil depletion, the amount of waste produced, water used and whether the product gives poor farmers in the South a much needed income. One has to ask if even the most 'green' consumer is able to get hold of all this information when buying food – let alone has the time to research each item. Supermarkets, which sell about 75% of all food in the UK, some via wholesalers, do not provide all this information or any of it.

So is this a strategy that is doomed to fail, despite all the good intentions? The booklet advocates four action points for consumers: buy from developing countries, if possible Fairtrade, drive less, waste less and eat less meat and dairy. All green consumers will agree with the last three points, but I think you have to question an increase in food imported from the developing countries, particularly if it is flown to the UK. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change we have to reduce all means of fossil fuel transport drastically, probably to zero.

Another argument against food imports in large quantities is food security. All food that can be produced locally should be produced locally. It should be organic, without fertilisers made of fossil fuels. For some strange reason this booklet does not advocate organic food and other sustainable ways of producing food, like using permaculture techniques.

But what about the poor farmer in the developing countries whose income depends on exporting his or her products to the West? We cannot just cut off their life-line without offering an alternative. There are over one billion people in the developing world who do not get enough to eat. This scandal will not be solved by buying more food from the South. Only by offering these countries help to feed their own people can this systemic problem be solved. The imported food from the developing countries is controlled by a few multinational corporations that take over 90% of the profit from this business and pay the poor farmers peanuts. We cannot use them to create development for the South. We have to go around them or get rid of them.

The authors only consider the readers as consumers and not as citizens who can campaign for change. This omission is even more strange when Oxfam is behind the booklet as Oxfam is very much a successful campaigning organisation.

Even if you may not agree with this little booklet's strategy it raises relevant questions on using food miles as the only yardstick and it contains many interesting facts you need to know of if you want to be a green consumer.