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Today’s food is well travelled. A pack of green beans in an European supermarket may have journeyed 6000 miles, or 60. While food miles loom large in our carbon-aware times, transporting it counts for less than you might think. This paper investigates the effectiveness of initiatives to reduce the number of food miles by their impact on climate change. The paper comes to the conclusion that food miles, the distance that food has travelled from farm to fork, indeed reduces the amount of greenhouse gas released. However, this does not imply that less food miles are a more sustainable way of producing. Moreover, the concept might be a justification for protectionist purposes and has significant negative side effects.
Climate change is one of the greatest environmental threats of our time. The cause of climate change is mainly the emission of greenhouse gas as a result of human activity, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A significant reduction of greenhouse gas emission is needed in order to the mitigate the effects on the climate. To accomplish this, two international treaties have been adopted: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The countries that ratified the Kyoto protocol committed to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gas by a given percent compared to their emission level in 1990 (Pinkse and Kolk, 2009). To achieve this, the EU has set the following targets: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, improve energy efficiency by 20%, raise the share of renewable energies to 20% and raise the share of bio-fuels in road transport to 10%. These targets should all be achieved by the year 2020 (Confederation of Food and Drink Industries, 2008). Many industries have taken activities to cut energy use and emissions, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2), due to stricter legislative requirements and rising energy prices.
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Also the food industry is actively taking part in reducing energy and emissions, especially carbon dioxide. Example of such activities are the investment in energy efficient technologies, by voluntarily cutting energy use and even by participating in national energy efficiency schemes (Confederation of Food and Drink Industries, 2008). In household consumption, food has one of the highest impact on the environment. According to a study on the environmental impact of products, food and drinks cause 20 to 30% of the environmental impacts of private consumption (Tukker et al., 2006). In this study the food production and distribution chain has been fully analyzed and identifies products that are most greenhouse gas intensive. According to this study, meat, dairy, fats and oils are the most greenhouse gas intensive products. The estimated meats’ global warming potential ranges from about 4 to 12% of all products studied across the EU. Milk and dairy products are responsible for 2 to 4%, fruits and vegetables for approximately 2%.
The food chain consists of many different stages with many different players, like farmers, suppliers, transport companies, producers, retailers, consumers and waste management companies. At all stages of food’s product life cycle there are activities that may have an impact on climate change. These include farming, manufacturing, processing, packaging, storage, transportation, consumption and disposal (Carlsson-Kanyama et al., 1997). It is estimated that the food industry accounts for about 1.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. Within the whole food chain, agriculture accounts for 49% of greenhouse gas emissions, followed by the consumption (18%) and manufacturing (11%) (Confederation of Food and Drink Industry, 2008). Transportation is also an important contributor to greenhouse gas emission, because of the consumption of fuel and energy. Transport is estimated to account for 21 % of the greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, but it is unclear how much of these emissions should be allocated specifically to food transportation (Confederation of Food and Drink Industry, 2008). Other impact on climate change in food production also depends on other factors, like the agricultural soil, the country’s climate, the intensity of use of fertilizers and chemicals, and the amount of energy and fuels used at different stages of the distribution chain. It is essential to take all these factors into account when estimating the impact of food products on climate change. However, this is not always possible or feasible, because of the complexity of the supply chain and the lack of available data.
Food miles, which accounts for the distance products have been travelling to reach the end consumer, has increased awareness recently. Nowadays many food products travel long distances before their final consumption. In the USA, for example, the food for one typical meal has travelled more than 2000 kilometers. And, if that meal contains any off-season fruit or vegetable the total distance is much more (Oxfam, 2009). It is commonly for food to be transported great distances to be packaged and processed, and then sent back in order to be sold near the place where it was produced. An example of this kind of practice is the shrimp industry in the Netherlands.
There are several factors that have led to the increase in the distances food travels. These include: trade liberalization, sourcing from around the world, geographical centralization to achieve economies of scale, increased market share of retailers located out of the town of consumers, and finally, lower transportation costs of air freight, which relatively cheap compared to some other supply chain costs (Smith et al, 2005). As a result of the miles that food makes, emissions like CO2 are increasingly released, which contribute to climate change. The term ‘food miles’ was introduced by the British non-governmental organization Sustainable Agriculture, Food and the Environment (SAFE) in 1994. They were the first to address the danger of long distances in food transportation. The concept implies that the lower the food miles, the less impact a product has on climate change. Therefore, consumers should be encouraged to buy locally produced food. Some retailers in Europe and North America started promoting food miles initiative in order to address the problem of the long distances that food travels. These initiatives are often focused on promoting localism or regionalism in food sourcing. A few examples of these kind of initiatives will be discussed later.
Food Miles Calculation Complexity
In order to calculate the distance that food has travelled, the commonly used formula is the Weighted Average Source Distance. This formula combines information of the distances from production to point of sale (kilometers) and the amount of food product transported (Carlsson-Kanyama, 1997). The formula for the Weighted Average Source Distance is: Î£ (m(k) x d(k)) / Î£ m(k). Where ‘k’ stand for the different location points of the production, ‘m’ stand for the weight from each point of production, and ‘d’ stand for distance from each point of production or sale. Although this formula looks quite simple, the application is rather difficult, because many food consist of multiple ingredients. Due to a lack of precise data about the exact distance of all ingredients, the calculation is often based on approximations. The formula does also not take into account how the food is transported (by marine, road, rail or air). This transport mode is important, because different transport modes have different emissions per product unit.
Drivers for Food Miles Initiatives
There are five main drivers for initiatives to reduce food miles: NGO pressure, government support, consumer demand, food miles as a marketing concept and the potential reduction of costs. In the early 1990’s British NGO’s addressed the social and the environmental impacts caused by food miles. The main argument to support the food miles concept was the concern for climate change. It was implied that the longer the distance food travels, the more energy is consumed, the more fossil fuels are burned, and consequently the more greenhouse gases are released. Therefore the solution proposed was to source food from as close as possible to where it will be finally consumed (Saunders et al., 2006). Other arguments used included the concern that food that could be produced in the home country was imported instead, which causes a loss of income to local production, and also the concern that workers overseas might not be treated fairly (Oxfam, 2009). Some NGO’s were specifically against air freighting of food because this kind of transport is very energy intensive and causes the most negative externalities to the environment. They also addressed multilateral international trade, this is when a product was imported in the UK while the national production of that same product was exported from the country. As the solution to these problems, the British NGOs promoted to consume food that was locally produced (Saunders et al, 2006).
Many EU countries support the concept of local food production and local food consumption. For example, the Italian government forces local authorities to include organic and local food in the school catering. The EU itself, although not directly supporting the concept of food miles, provides funding to support local food initiatives to develop farmers’ markets and local food brands (Euractiv, 2011). Food miles is seen as a possibility to improve environmental sustainability, because the distance and transport mode are important elements within the food chain as well as being associated with pollution from vehicle emissions (Saunders et al, 2006).
Also the consumer awareness has raised the concern about the impact that food transportation has both environmentally and socially. This awareness has increased due to a few major food issues of the last decade (e.g. mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, Q-fever, swine flu and the discussion about producing genetically modified food). These events have raised consumer interest about the origin and traceability of their food. Nowadays, many consumers and restaurant owners have a strong preference for local food product. An important reason why they choose local foods is because consumers have more trust in locally produced food since they know where it comes from. The concept of food miles has become familiar topic to the public, which lead to the consumer’s believe that food travelling a shorter distance is better for the environment. Consumers also argue that local food is more fresh and even tastes better than when it travelled long distances (Pirog and Benjamin, 2003).
As already mentioned, consumers are interested in having the opportunity to purchase products that was produced and processed within their own region. These customers might be specifically interested in buying low food miles products due to their perceived freshness and quality (Pirog and Benjamin, 2003). Food retailers and food producers anticipate on this demand and use the food miles concept as a marketing tool. These marketing messages support the consumers’ perception that locally produced food is better. Therefore the food miles concept helps to differentiate products from the competition. Because climate change aspects are increasingly being included in business strategies, the concept of food miles is sometimes used by producers in marketing strategies to differentiate products from the international competition. An example of this is Friesland Campina, who only source from Dutch dairy farmers, and this actively promotes in advertisement. Campina customers also have the opportunity to trace their milk via an unique code on the milk cartons.
The last driver is the potential cost reduction of transportation. The costs for food transportation is relatively cheap compared to other supply chain costs. The cost of shipping containers around the world is relatively low and fuel for aviation is not taxed. Also, for a long time air freight and shipment were included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, but this has been included in the ETS from 2011 onwards (Euractiv, 2007). Airlines will therefore have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or buy some sort of pollution credits on the carbon market. However, the EU recently initiated the first key measure to reduce the impact of air travel on global warming. The European Commission set an emissions cap for the aviation sector. Emissions trading for the aviation sector will start in January 2012 with a yearly allowance of 213 million tons of CO2 (Euractiv, 2011). This will increase the costs of transportation, including of food products. Therefore, it is interesting to integrate the food miles concept in the procurement policy of a policy, because it might bring potential cost savings on airline freighting.
Examples of Food Miles Initiatives
As it was mentioned earlier, food quality, support of local community, food freshness and concern about the impact of transport on climate change have increased consumers’ interest in the origin and traceability of food, including a strong preference for locally produced food. Therefore, driven by consumer demand and with the objective to reduce food mileages of the products they distribute, big retailers made local sourcing initiatives a core aspect of their sustainable policies.
The food miles concept can be used in two ways to reduce the environmental impact of food transport, the so called ‘fewer miles’ and ‘friendlier miles’ notions. Fewer miles means that companies and retailers are trying to reduce the overall distance that food travels. Such initiatives include local sourcing and greater capacity vehicles that carry more products in one trip. Friendlier miles are achieved when the environmental impact of the distance travelled is reduced by using less damaging forms of transport (such as rail or water compared to road or air) or by technological improvements in vehicle and fuel technologies to reduce the impact of any given mile (DEFRA Annual Report, 2007). The air-freighted labels, for consumers to identify products having been transported by plane, can be an example of friendlier miles initiatives as its final goal is to promote more sustainable transport modes.
Ahold takes initiatives for fewer food miles. The supermarkets in the Ahold group are encouraged to source in a sustainable way and reduce their environmental footprint by buying local. In the United States, a product is considered local if it is sourced from the state or municipality in which the supermarkets operates. Many of the US stores operate in rich agricultural areas, so they are able to source many products locally. However, there are government regulations that restrict the use of the term local (especially when applied to dairy products), and this varies by state, region or municipality. In the United States, a local product program is executed during the local growing seasons. During 2010, Giant Food Stores and Martin’s Food Markets encouraged customers to follow the so called ‘Local Route’ in stores that pointed the way to fresh products grown locally by farmers within their own communities. A second initiative is at Rimi Supermarket in Estonia. This initiative raises consumer awareness about Estonian products by adding an Estonian flag label to products of Estonian origin. At some stores in Lithuania, local farm shops known as ‘vikis’ have opened within the stores. Local farm produce in Rimi hypermarkets, where customers can buy high-quality products grown or produced by small- and medium-scale Lithuanian farmers. The shop-within-a-shop concept supports the idea of local sourcing and production, meeting the demands of customers and suppliers (Ahold, Corporate Responsibility Report 2010).
Hellmann’s has been taking another initiative to support fewer food miles. In 2009, the Unilever mayonnaise brand Hellmann’s, campaigned for the consumption of local food in Canada. As part of its ‘Eat real. Eat local’ campaign it was running a commercials that makes the Canadians wonder how far their food travels to get to their dinner tables. The campaign highlights the increasing tendency of food importation, and how this phenomenon influences the Canadian economy, the environment and communities. Food like cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, which Canadians can grow in their own backyards, actually travel many miles and are hardly fresh by the time they are eaten. The message is mainly meant for Canadians, but could certainly be applied elsewhere. Although the climate change is mentioned the commercial, the main emphasis is on the threats to the domestic economy and not so much on the environmental consequences of food miles (Unilever’s Sustainable Development Overview 2009).
Heineken Netherlands recently took an initiative for friendlier miles. The beer and soda manufacturer, bottles more than 70% of its export beer in the brewery of Zoeterwoude. This means that large volumes of beer have to be transported via the highly populated roads of South Holland. In order to relieve the traffic around the brewery and to reduce the company’s carbon footprint, it decided to build the a large container terminal along the channel. Since October 2010, Heineken transports all its export products by boat to the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp. By this initiative, Heineken transports three-quarters of its the total transport over water instead, which is taken off the road. The initiative is expected to reduce the number of trucks on the road with 100.000 per years, who account for 6 million kilometers. Heineken reduces its emission of carbon dioxide with 35% (Heineken Sustainability Report, 2010).
Marks and Spencer
To address the problem of climate change caused by air traffic and to meet the customers’ interest in knowing how food is transported, the UK retailer Marks & Spencer, started an initiative under the concept of friendlier food miles. Since 2007, they label the food that has been imported by air. Marks & Spencer prints a small airplane symbol and the words ‘air freighted’ (see Figure 1) on over 150 different food products, including beans and strawberries. Marks and Spencer has created this label for all of their air-freighted food to enable customers to identify products which have been transported by air and to help the company to ensure that this form of transport is used only where local alternatives are not available (Marks and Spencer, How We Do Business Report, 2010).
Figure 1. Air freighted label.
Strengths and limitations
In this section, the main strengths and limitations of the food miles initiatives will be presented. It can be said that one of the main advantages of initiatives promoting local food, is that they can lead to a reduction of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions because food does not travel as far as if imported from other countries. Buying local food also has the advantage of promoting local farming, which, in turn, supports the local economy and the creation of new employment opportunities. It is also believed that local food is fresher and tastes better than food shipped long distances. However, it is questionable to what extent food miles really guarantees that a product sourced locally generates lower greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore whether implementing the food miles concept actually results in a lower climate change impact.
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An important limitation for the food miles concept is that it might is used as a justification for protectionism of the local economy. Therefore, the food miles concept has been criticized (Wilson, 2007). Since the main principle of food miles is to promote fewer miles and the consumption of local products, this might create unofficial ‘import barriers’ for some countries to export their products because they travel long distances. Another limitation that can be used against the food miles concept is the fact that a single indicator based on the total distance food is transported, cannot be an adequate indicator of sustainability (Smith et al, 2005). A study carried out Smith et al for DEFRA came to the conclusion that a range of factors have an effect on the overall impacts of food transport, not only the miles travelled. The concept of food miles is therefore inadequate, since it excludes the climate impact of other aspects than transportation (DEFRA, 2005).
Food transportation represents just one of many components of the total environmental impact of food production and consumption. When assessing the environmental impact of food, it is essential to take into account all those different factors, including how food was produced, packed, stored, as well, how and how far it was transported. As an example, Smith et al. found out that importing tomatoes from Spain during the winter generates less CO2 emissions than growing tomatoes in greenhouses in the UK (Figure 2).
Local produced tomatoes in the UK (high emissions, low miles):
Imported tomatoes from Spain (lower emissions, more miles):
Figure 2. Represenation of CO2 emission, UK vs. Spain (Smith et al, 2005).
Another example is from the horticulture industry, which coulis similar to many food products. Williams (2007) carried out a comparative study of the carbon impact of growing 12,000 quality cut stem roses in Kenya and air-freighting them, with growing them in the Netherlands and driving them to the UK. The results of the study are presented in the table below. It shows that the production and following export and delivery of Kenyan roses generates less greenhouse gas than the production and delivery of Dutch roses. This is mainly due to the fact that Kenyan production uses substantially less primary and fossil energy than the Dutch production (Williams, 2007). The results are presented in table 1 below.
2400 kgCO2e (without altitude impact) and 6200 kgCO2e (with altitude impact).
37 000 kgCO2e.
Most carbon intensive stages
Air freight (73-89% of climate impact).
Heating and lighting of greenhouses (99% of climate impact).
Other key differences
Geothermal source for energy use and almost double the yield per unit area.
Fossil intensive heating and lighting, and just over half the Kenyan yield rate.
Table 1: Comparison of impacts for the production of 12,000 roses from Kenyan and The Netherlands (Williams, 2007)
Pirog and Benjamin (2003) also showed that food miles might only represent a small percentage of the total energy inputs in a product’s life cycle. According to their study, transportation accounts for 11% of the energy use within the total food system, this is considerably less than agricultural production (17.5%) and processing (28.1%) (see Figure 3). To quantify the climate impact of a product, it is essential to consider all greenhouse gas emissions through the whole life cycle of the product and not only the ones related to transportation, or just looking at the distance in miles or kilometers.
Figure 3. Energy use in the US food system (Pirog and Benjamin, 2003)
Another problem with the food miles concept is that it does not take into account the mode of transport (Saunders et al, 2006). Air freight has by far the highest global warming potential of all transport modes. It is also important to note that there is also a significant difference between road and rail an boat transportation, the latter appears to be more climate-friendly transport modes than road. Transport efficiency also makes a difference. According to Smith et al (2005), there is also a concern that moving to lower food miles (e.g. local sourcing) can have a negative impact on overall transport and energy efficiency. They explain it by the fact that if there is a growth in business for smaller producers and retailers, there could be an increase in energy consumption as smaller vehicles are used and economies of scale in production are lost (Smith et al., 2005).
There is also a concern that a reduction of food miles, in particular prohibiting air freighted products, could have an adverse impact on imports from developing countries. This concern is motivated by the fact that farmers in developing country are heavily dependent on exports to developed country markets (Oxfam, 2009). Therefore, restricting air freighted products on a large scale have high impact on farmers of Africa. In this way climate change is going to affect the poor in Africa harder than anyone else, which are the people who have done least to cause the problem. Some business therefore disapprove the use of an airplane symbol such as Marks and Spencer’s logo. Oxfam for example, supports the initiative for ‘fair miles’, one that also takes the fairness of trade with developing countries into consideration.
Finally, there is discussion whether policies based on food miles could lead to an increase of food prices. On the one hand, reducing food miles might lead to reduced transportation costs, which, could reduce food prices. On the other hand, locally sourced food can be more expensive than globally sourced food, because economies of scale are lost or due to differences in labor costs (Smith et al, 2005).
It has been shown that food miles, although initially believed to be a potential good indicator of climate sustainability, has just limited benefits in terms of mitigating climate change. Food transportation represent one of many components of the total environmental impact of food production and consumption. When assessing the environmental impact of food, it is essential to take into account all those different factors, including how food was produced, packed, stored, as well as but not only, how and how far it was transported. The concept can be used for protectionist purposes, but has significant negative side effects. First of all, it is unclear what the impact is for product-related costs and food prices. The implementation of food miles can force companies to put particular attention to the efficiency of the food distribution system beyond their own operations. This leads in particular to a reduction of companies’ transport-related greenhouse gas emissions. From a cost perspective, the implementation of the food miles concept can potentially both reduce and increase companies’ costs, leading to an increase or decrease of food prices. On the one hand, reducing food miles might lead to reduced transportation costs. On another hand, locally sourced food can be more expensive than globally sourced food, because economies of scale are lost or due to higher labor costs. Secondly, a reduction of food miles, in particular prohibiting air freighted products, could have an adverse impact on imports from developing countries.
To conclude, if food producers and retailers want to operate more sustainable ways and mitigate their impact on climate change, they should not only focus on food miles. While increased food transport obviously has an environmental impact, the kilometers that food travels do not per se serve as a valid indicator. The evidence is relatively weak in terms of local sourcing leading to lower impact as a general rule. In addition to environmental considerations, transport has to be seen in a wider context, taking account of the social and economic dimensions of sustainability, both in the EU and globally. Trade and transport is an inherent component of EU policy and it is essential to provide appropriate food supplies throughout the EU market and sufficient consumer choice. Moreover, sourcing products from non-EU countries, in particular developing countries, contributes to the development and wealth of those economies. A transport concept focusing on transport distances alone would therefore seriously undermine a number of key EU policy objectives in terms of social and economic sustainability.
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