The global food system allows millions of people to have access to foods from all over the world. We are no longer restricted by what is grown locally and by the seasons. However, the long travel distances of food not only has effects on the nutritional quality of the food, but may also have an impact on the environment.
What are food miles?
‘Food miles’ is one indicator when assessing the environmental impact of foods. The term 'food miles' refers to how far food has travelled from the paddock to the plate. As a general rule of thumb, for the same product, the lower the food miles, the less distance it has travelled and the better the choice is for the environment and for your health. This is particularly relevant in choosing local grown fresh fruit and vegetables over produce that has travelled many miles in refrigeraton.
Life Cyle Assessment of foods
The importance of food miles as the key indicator of carbon foot print has become contentious. It is just one dimension used in assessing the environmental impact of food (1). Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a method of systematically evaluating the environmental impacts of an item throughout its life cyle. This includes measuring all the inputs into its production. Because of the expense of conducting LCAs, there are still relatively few items that can be easily compared. There are also issues in the methodology in determining LCAs in the agriculture sector where there are large variations between years in the inputs required and the efficiency of production due to weather and other confounding factors. More information on LCA can be found here.
Why minimise your food miles?
Did you know?
- The transport of food over longer distances releases more greenhouse gas emissions than buying locallyFoods that have been stored and transported large distances are likely to be nutritionally inferior to local foods (2)
- A typical Australian food basket has travelled an estimated 70,000km – this is equivalent to travelling twice around the circumference of the Earth or travelling around Australia’s coastline three times (2)
- The transport of food by air generates 177 times more greenhouse gases than shipping (2)
Choose less processed foods
Generally, the more processed a food is, the more energy and water it requires in the production process
- Generally, the more processed a food is, the more energy and water it requires in the production process
- Processing methods, such as milling and juicing eliminates vitamins, minerals and fibre
- Processed foods also tend to be higher in fats, salt, preservatives and other additives (3)Brewing and winemaking industries are heavy users of water. An estimated 100 litres of water are required to brew one bottle of beer & 270 litres of water are required to produce one bottle of wine (4)
How to minimise your food miles
- Become familiar with foods that are grown or produced locally and what time of the year they are available. Seasonal food guides are available from some fruit markets and online. Click here for a seasonal food guide developed for south-east Queensland and for seasonal recipes.
- Look for local farmers markets, community gardens, food co-operatives and community supported agriculture schemes. Foodconnect is one example of a community supported agriculture scheme.
- Grow your own fruit and vegetables and keep chickens in your own backyard
- Read the labels of packaged foods and choose those where the ingredients are grown, produced and manufactured in Australia where possible
- Purchase fewer processed foods. These items are likely to be high in fat, salt and/or sugar
- Choose fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables for snacks rather than processed foods such as crisps, biscuits, bought cakes and muesli bars
- Cook meals using fresh ingredients rather than purchasing ready-made meals
- Ask questions of your food retailers and manufacturers regarding the origin of the food you are buying. Locate fruit and vegetable retailers, butchers, delicatessens and fishmongers who sell food produced locally
- Limit your intake of alcohol
- Purchase alcohol with the lowest food miles possible
- If you enjoy a particular beer or wine, contact the manufacturer to learn about their environmental policies and to advocate for more environmentally friendly production methods
How can you identify whether food and drinks are produced here or overseas?
‘Product of...’ labelling means the country of origin claimed must be the country of origin of each significant ingredient in the food and virtually all of the production or manufacture of the foods must have happened in that country.(5) For example, ‘Product of Australia’ means that the product is produced or manufactured in Australia, using only Australian ingredients.
‘Made in …’ means the product has been substantially changed in the claimed country and 50 percent of the cost of production has been carried out in that country.(5) For example, a can of tomatoes with the label ‘Made in Australia’ may contain fresh tomatoes that have been imported from Italy and then peeled and canned in Australia. A common label of this nature is ‘Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients’.
- Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. Life Cycle Assessments: A useful tool for Australian Agriculture. 2009 [cited 2012 Mar 7]. Retrieved from: http://www.australianpork.com.au/pages/images/CCRSPI090909LCABrochure_final.pdf on 7.3.2012.
- Gaballa S, Abraham A B. Food miles in Australia: a preliminary study of Melbourne, Victoria [internet]. 2008 [cited 2008 Jun 20]. Retrieved from: http://www.ceres.org.au/sites/default/files/CERES_Report_%20Food_Miles_in_Australia_March08.pdf
- Leitzmann C. Wholesome nutrition: a suitable diet for the new nutrition science project. Public Health Nutrition. 2005; 8 (6A): 753-9.
- Myer W. Beer uses less water than wine [internet]. 2007 [cited 2010 Feb 18]. Available from:http://cleanerproduction.curtin.edu.au/local/resources/casestudies/swan-brewery.pdf
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Country of origin labelling of food: Canberra: Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2006.