Blog: Dean BestThe flaws with "food miles"

Dean Best | 1 June 2007

Are “food miles” really sufficient in measuring the environmental impact of food production?

That was among a series of questions debated at a conference held yesterday (31 May) in London to discuss the food industry’s role in climate change.

The conference was organised by Green Power Conferences, an event organiser “committed to managing the impact of climate change” (so says their website). And just-food was there to hear executives from retailers, manufacturers, environmental analysts and lobbyists give their views on a wide range of issues.

The concept of food miles was a common theme – and a topic of hot debate – throughout the day. As climate change is the hot political, social and economic issue of the moment, lobbying from UK food producers has helped push the concept of food miles into the media spotlight.

Local food must be more environmentally friendly, they say – the distance it travels from farm to fork is shorter so its carbon footprint is smaller. Right? Wrong. Local food, per se, is not necessarily more environmentally friendly than that produced overseas. There is no reason, per se, that food produced in Kent has a lower environmental footprint than food produced in Kenya.

The concept of food miles remains easy for consumers to grasp but, in practice, it is too simplistic and we lose sight of a raft of wider sustainability issues. How does, for instance, the issue of Fair Trade fit into a concept of food miles?

And how can the food industry effectively communicate those issues on sustainability to consumers in a way they are willing and able to understand?

And just how “turned on” to environmental issues are consumers anyway? It would be naïve to assume that price and convenience are no longer the two key drivers in food consumption.


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