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Editors’ Picks: Lower “food miles” may not be greener

The notion that the food traveling the shorter distance from gate to plate is the most environmentally friendly is being challenged in a new British study and in a Canadian policy paper.

Cranfield University, based in Bedfordshire in the east of England, recently released a new comparative life-cycle assessment of food commodities, a £161,000, two-year study funded by the British government, suggesting the “food miles” argument is often flawed, according to the UK farm journal Farmers Weekly.

The Cranfield study looked at factors such as energy use, global warming potential, pesticide use and land used to produce seven foods, including potatoes, beef, lamb and strawberries, the journal said.

Because so much energy is used to heat greenhouses in Britain, there’s a trade-off between the amount of energy burned to produce them in the UK and the amount used to transport strawberries and tomatoes from Spain, for example.

In another instance, Farmers Weekly reported, production systems used by Brazilian and British poultry farmers appear largely similar. But the Cranfield report said 25 per cent less energy was used in producing Brazilian poultry meat, given the lower cost of hauling soy feed, the lower costs of natural ventilation and the simpler housing structures in Brazilian operations.

Unless British consumers are willing to eat more seasonal foods or go vegan, it may be better to import staples and avoid the emissions caused by longer-term refrigeration of British produce, the study suggested.

“Marketing fad”

People might choose to buy local for the food’s freshness or flavour, or out of support for the local community, “but if you’re doing it to save the planet, you’re being misguided,” University of Toronto professor Pierre Desrochers said in a separate story recently on CBC.

In a recent policy paper, Desrochers said the concept of “food miles” is based what he called a faulty premise: that transportation is the chief contributor to greenhouse gases in food production and processing.

“Food miles are, at best, a marketing fad,” he said in his report, citing “efficient” farms in California raising roughly 17 times as many strawberries as a typical Ontario farmer on the same acreage base and using the same resources.

“When you’re that efficient you can invest in better handling and storage,” Desrochers told CBC. “The environmental impact of transportation isn’t very significant.”

He cited studies showing British farmers emit 2,394 kg of carbon dioxide for every tonne of tomatoes they produce, while Spanish farmers produce only 630 kg of carbon dioxide but produce the same amount.

And rose producers in Kenya emit 6,000 kg of carbon dioxide for every 12,000 cut flowers they sell in Europe, whereas Dutch competitors generate 35,000 kg to do the same.

Desrochers told CBC he’s not opposed to buying local but urged consumers to be aware of foods’ seasons and geography. “A 100-mile diet might be quite economical and varied in Vancouver… (but) it’s quite a different story in Edmonton, for example.”

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