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“Fair Miles”: rethinking food miles

Posted in Research by Kate Archdeacon on January 21st, 2010

Source: Food Climate Research Network

Fair Miles: Recharting the food miles map by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) & Oxfam warns that Western concern over climate change can do more harm than good if it cuts demand for food produced in developing nations. The authors say locally produced food can actually cause greater emissions of greenhouse gases, and that consumers can harm the livelihoods of poor farmers in developing nations if they stop buying their produce.

“Climate change will hit poorer rural people in developing nations first, fastest and hardest,” says James MacGregor of IIED. “High-value trade with such nations is critical to build rural economies that are resilient to climate change. The trade in fresh produce is one part of a global solution to this challenge…When consumers focus on ‘food miles’ they are ignoring the other social and environmental issues embedded in their shopping decisions…More than one million livelihoods in rural Africa are supported in part by UK consumption of imported fresh produce. We urge consumers to avoid knee-jerk reactions and think instead of ‘fair miles’ and recognise that there are also social and ethical aspects to choices about where food comes from.”

The researchers are not saying locally grown food is a poor choice. “Eating local food when it is in season is a critical element of a balanced diet, and is complementary to eating development-friendly foods out-of-season,” says MacGregor. The book argues that as farmers in developing nations contribute so little to climate change, they shouldn’t be penalised because we emit more in the West. It says consumers serious about changing their behaviour in order to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions should be cycling or walking to their supermarket.


The next time you sit down to dinner, really look at what’s on your plate. Where was that chicken raised? Those lentils grown? Which farm produced the green beans, potatoes, broccoli?  As supermarket foragers, people in the industrialised world make fast choices based on a range of criteria, from nutrition to simple craving.  But more and more are digging a bit further to discover where, and how, their plateload was produced.

The answers they unearth have big implications for our environment. The farm-to-fork ‘food chain’ is a source of the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change — the overarching environmental issue of our time.  But we’re not just looking at a plateful of emissions here. Food is a social, political and economic issue too. Today’s ‘balanced’ diet involves a lot more than protein and carbohydrates. It’s about choosing from a diversity of sources — local to long-distance. By eating some imported fruit and vegetables, you could be making a choice that supports the livelihoods of poor farmers half a world away.

In this booklet we look at an overview of the globalised food business and its social and environmental implications; the pathways food takes from plot to plate; and the links between climate change, food choices and poverty in the developing world context. Its goal is to introduce you to the complex world of sustainable development and environmental accounting, and highlight how your selections in supermarket aisles affect people living in poverty — both as small farmers, and as members of climate-vulnerable communities.

We focus on African nations and the UK for reasons we explain below. Lessons learned from the trade between them, and comparisons of environmental and social costs across other countries, could provide a model for change all over the world.

The ultimate hope is that you, the consumer, will ask the right questions and make the right choices.

Download the booklet.

Source: Food Climate Research Network

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