Why Food Miles Matter and How to Reduce Them
Investigating the road less travelled between producer and consumer.
For this month’s post I thought I’d give myself a reality check. I think as a farmer I’m quick to point a finger at people who perhaps don’t eat the same as me. I’m extremely passionate about supporting local producers and am vocal online about encouraging others to do the same. But do I really practice what I preach? Am I really making my very best effort to pick local over global every time I eat? In today’s post, I'll take a quick look at food miles, how to reduce them, and deep dive into my daily eating habits.
What Are Food Miles?
Many of us will be familiar with the notion of ‘food miles’. The idea of how many miles, or just how far, our food travels from farm to fork. We’re told that, in order to reduce our carbon footprint, we must reduce our miles. We need to eat locally and with the seasons to minimise the impact of our consumption on the environment.
But how many of us actually take heed of that advice? How many people are following (what they believe to be) a much more environmentally-conscious diet of avocados, almond milk and soy-based proteins? When in reality, a diet like that could have clocked up over 10,000 food miles before lunch?
My Food Diary: Some Insight Into Where and How Far Our Food Comes From
In an effort to ‘check myself’, I decided to make a note of everything I ate for one day last week and clock up ‘my miles’. So let’s take a look at how far my food has come from. Simple enough (or so I thought!).
Quick Look at My Breakfast and Beyond
So, starting with what I had for breakfast:
- Chocolate Weetabix (🤤 far superior to ANY other cereal)
The milk is from the tank, costing me 0 miles (off to a flying start!) But then I start looking at my Weetabix box. It’s a British-made cereal from a now American-owned company. As of 2016 they had re-committed to sourcing their wheat from local farmers and Red-Tractor assured farms. Big win! But a quick glance at the ingredients list and I find myself lost in a maze of other ingredients that instantly make me doubt my decision to try and count food miles.
It’s here that I fell down a mileage-count rabbit hole. My cereal has chocolate in it, the Weetabix website only talks about the sourcing of the wheat. A quick Google search shows that 70% of the world's cocoa beans come from 4 West African countries and so, assuming that the cocoa beans come from one of those four countries, I’m on a grand total of 3,159 miles before I finish my bowl.
Cup of milky tea next - I start my google search on the journey of English Breakfast tea and my chin hits the table. I feel almost embarrassed at my ignorance. The tea leaves in my humble tea bag have travelled from India and the Sri Lankan Highlands. Tallied up, it’s taken 10,700 miles to get those tea bags from there to my Northern Irish kitchen. Add that to my chocolate miles and I’m at nearly 14,000 (and it’s not even 6.30am!).
Lunch clocks me over 5,000 miles (down to an after-toastie banana!) and dinner roughly adds another 300 (local spuds, bacon and cabbage). So by 8pm I’m just shy of 20,000 food miles in 14 hours.
So how then, going forward can I make more conscious food choices to reduce my food miles as well as supporting my local suppliers?
Tips For Reducing Our Food Miles
As we know, exactly how to reduce our food miles is a tough question...and putting it into actual practice is even harder! Having said that, we can all take some relatively simple steps when it comes to shopping more ethically. So, if you're looking to reduce your food miles and support local produce, then these tips should help!
A simple one to start! Where possible, try to source the bulk of your ingredients from smaller, independent stores. We are, of course, a generation who have grown up with the luxury of choice but sourcing the majority of your staples from local stores will help increase your support for local communities as well as reducing the miles travelled. Another good tip is to go to restaurants that practice a farm to table approach.
Shop at local businesses online
The COVID pandemic encouraged a lot more local businesses to start online shops and local deliveries. Find out if anyone local delivers to you or has small shops in your area. Check out British and Irish Instagram businesses. There’s so many people advertising their home-grown products online and they’ll definitely appreciate your business more than the ‘big guys’.
Look out for seasonal fruit and vegetables
Globalisation has meant we can have pretty much any fruit or vegetable we wish for at pretty much any time of the year. But eating foods out of season can involve a fairly heavy cost for the environment. If they’re locally grown (but out of season) then they probably require a lot of artificial inputs to get them to the growth stage for harvesting. And if they’re out of season and grown away from the UK or Ireland then there’s probably quite a big mileage bill against them. Eating locally-grown and in-season fruit and veg is great for your health as well as your local community.
Why don’t you pay your local greengrocer or farm-shop a visit, they’ll be able to tell you all the best fruit and vegetables to eat at the right time of year (they’ll also be super fresh and fairly plastic-free!)
Grow your own fruit and vegetables
The best way to reduce your food miles is to grow your own food. This will practically get your mileage down to zero. Not only is it good for the environment, but you’ll know the exact process your food has been through. So, it’ll be most likely healthier too. And what better way to reward yourself for your efforts than by making a crumble with your freshly grown rhubarbs!
What Counting Food Miles Taught Me
Making a food diary made me more aware of where my food is coming from. I always thought I was a fairly ‘aware’ consumer, but obviously I have a lot to learn about the food I eat and the way I shop. Hopefully this post has inspired you to shop local or grow your own...so, here’s to reducing our food miles together!