Food miles essentially refer to the distance that the food you buy has traveled from the producer so that it is available in the shop in which you are buying it. The idea behind reducing your food miles is to lessen your contribution to the use of fossil fuels that is necessary to transport food long distances. The meaning of the terms has expanded a little beyond just the fuel used in vehicles that transport food, it also includes the energy needed to store, preserve and package the food so that it can make the journey in good condition. For instance, some products need to be frozen or refrigerated while in transit, and this ups the energy costs of that transportation.
This may sound very simple, but often we shop without knowing where the products we buy originated. In most countries and for most foodstuffs, it is a legal requirement to print the country or origin of a product on the packaging, or have it displayed somewhere prominent if it does not utilize packaging (such as fruit and vegetables). However, in the U.S. this system does not apply to foods where ingredients from elsewhere have been processed into another product within the U.S., so with those sorts of products it is a lot harder to determine the food miles that may have gone into them. Fortunately, processed foods are relatively unhealthy, so keeping those to a minimum is better for you and the environment.
Foods are more likely to have been sourced locally if they are in season. Being in season refers to the time when fruits and vegetables that grow in your local area reach maturity. And the more local the product the better, so food labeled as originating in your county is ideal, followed by a location in your state, then country. Eating seasonally is also better for you. It mans there is more variety in your diet as you do not expect to be able to eat the same foods all year round (which involve importing them when they are not in season in your location), and you eat food that is at the peak of its flavor profile and nutritional load.
Think About Transport Method
It is not just the distance that a foodstuff travels that impacts upon its food miles; it is also the method of transportation. As a general rule, you should try to limit your consumption of foods that have been transported by air the most, as these are typically moved in this way as they perish quickly and have to get from producer to market as soon as possible. Long truck journeys are also significant additions to food miles as they use a lot of resources to move comparatively little product. Sea travel is arguably the most efficient and ‘green’ form of food transportation, as a lot of goods can be transported in one go, making for smaller carbon expenditure. However, this is a guideline only, as the transportation methods may be offset by the energy costs of the product’s production.
Farmer’s Markets and Local Stores
These types of purveyors are more likely to stock local goods, as they lack the economies of scale to import food from afar. By shopping at farmers’ markets and local produce stores you not only avoid the processing, packaging, heating, and refrigeration that transporting food long distances entails – all of which consume energy – you also support small, local business and have the opportunity to speak to the producer – or at least someone who knows the provenance of your purchases – directly. This is a good opportunity to ask how the food was grown, i.e. were chemical fertilizers or inorganic pesticides used in it production.
Buying in bulk reduces food miles as you shop less frequently. Purchasing foodstuffs that can be stored for a long time – such as grains, flours, tinned goods – in large quantities makes sense in terms of both reducing food miles and saving money. Of course, buying in bulk will typically mean using a car to transport your purchases, so consider collaborating with your neighbors to visit wholesale shops together, so you don’t each make a separate car journey.
Cook From Scratch
Most processed and packaged meals are not made locally, and will often use ingredients sourced from lots of different locations. By cooking from scratch, you use ingredients that are sold as single products and will not have used as much energy in their preparation. (Cooking from scratch is also more often than not a lot healthier than eating pre-packaged and processed foods.)
Eat Less Meat
The energy costs of producing meat are typically higher than those to produce vegetables, and significantly more than the cost of growing grain. In modern industrial agriculture, most livestock animals do not forage, and are fed grain or vegetable based food, so the cultivation of the ingredients for this feed is added to the already high consumption of fuel and water that meat production entails. And because meat can be frozen for sale, it can be transported longer distances than many fruits and vegetables, which have to be sold fresh, adding to the food miles.
Don’t Drive to the Shops
It’s not just the transportation of the food in the stores that contributes to the food miles involved in going shopping – how you get to the shops also plays a part. Whenever possible take public transport to go shopping, or walk. It may take a little longer than driving in your car, but you will not only be reducing greenhouse gas emissions from automobile fuel, you will either be supporting public transport (which needs to become more prevalent in the fight against global warming) or getting some exercise.
Grow Your Own
The ultimate way to reduce your food miles – to zero, in fact – is to grow your own. Permaculture gardeners know this and seek to get the maximum yield from their plot, reducing their need to shop for food. However, even those without a lot of space can grow something, which will contribute to saving food miles. Herbs and salad greens will grow well in a window box while a balcony or courtyard extends the cultivation possibilities to a wide variety of fruit and vegetable species that can grow in containers.