A lack of joined up thinking is leading to an increasingly mixed batch of messages sent by food manufacturers, retailers and governments as to where, how and what food consumers should buy. Bernice Hurst comments.

While ‘food miles’ is becoming a universally recognised expression, and both ‘seasonality’ and ‘local’ are re-entering the English vocabulary, the British government recently announced that shopping locally is not necessarily the panacea we have been lead to believe. A report produced by the Manchester Business School (MBS) for the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), ‘Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption’, has caused concern among those trying to change shopping habits.

Headline conclusions, that in some cases globally sourced food is environmentally better than locally sourced food were both confusing and misleading. The media did, however, highlight the relative harm caused by consumers driving to the shops for just one or two items as opposed to large lorries transporting full loads of goods. “In some cases, some imported as well as British, conventionally grown produce, is less environmentally damaging than British-grown organic produce,” announced the report.

The conclusions were seen by the Soil Association and other organic proponents as an attack which did not take into consideration factors such as the effects on biodiversity. But Professor Ken Green, one of the authors, explained to just-food that “our point is mostly concerned with the carbon footprint of the mode of travel – road and sea freight travel can use less energy per kg transported than transport of small loads in the UK. It’s not the DISTANCE things travel (implicit in the ‘food miles’ concept) but the MODE of travel and the ENERGY used that is important.” Concerns were expressed about the impact of transporting food by air but MBS stresses that this only represents relatively small quantities.

“The available data suggests that, looking at UK food transportation as a whole, the environmental impacts of car-based shopping are greater than those of transport within the distribution system itself,” the report concludes.

To further hammer home the message, environment secretary David Miliband has suggested that eco-labels offering information about the food miles and carbon emissions required by different food products should become routine. In a speech to the National Farmers’ Union, he proposed new, standardised, labels that would show energy inputs, fertiliser use, soil and waste management as well as water pollution.

Speaking just a week after the MBS study, Miliband contended that making information available about the amount of greenhouse gases involved in growing and transporting food would help consumers in their decision-making and producers in improving their practices.

Meanwhile, some of the world’s biggest grocery retailers are looking for sites and partners ever further from their bases, encouraging more consumers to buy more globally sourced food (which often can only be transported by air if spoilage is to be minimised) at the same time that they are trumpeting their latest green initiatives.

Cynics might look at the timing of MBS’s report, coinciding as it does with the Competition Commission’s study into supermarket power and rumours that planning changes will allow more out-of-town supermarkets, as well as road-charging proposals and be forgiven for asking how ‘joined up thinking’ could possibly be applied to such apparently contradictory policies. Following the arguments to their illogical conclusion, consumers might think that bigger lorries avoiding town centres to deliver larger quantities to superstores is the best solution to environmentally friendly food production and distribution.