Opinion: Fair food

G Magazine

Food miles and buying local are overrated concepts when it comes to a sustainable diet, argues the former Australian Operations Manager for Fairtrade Labelling Australia & New Zealand.

Fair food

While food miles is an appealing concept... the goal of a sustainable world requires us to go further.

Credit: iStockphoto

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The growing trend of consumers in Western nations buying local, organic and ethically sourced products is welcome news for a planet in dire straits, a food system in crisis, and hundreds of millions of farmers dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.

For such sustainable consumption to make the kind of impact we desperately need it to, however, the food politics movement needs to grow larger, and fast.

Simpler messages that resonate emotionally are necessary to mobilise consumers, but we must be wary of oversimplification and – as people latch on to ‘buy local’ and other popular concepts, such as ‘food miles’ – ensure that the outcomes the planet needs are being achieved and not undermined.

A new, world-leading food policy launched by the UK government in early January this year, Food 2030, spelled out some of the negative and unintended consequences of these buy local and food miles trends. The policy – likely to be the first of many launched by developed nations as they scramble to ensure food security – argues for better indicators of how our food consumption impacts both people and the planet.

While it calls for greater food production within the UK, it also argues for purchasing of products from developing nations to secure the livelihoods and boost the prosperity of their farmers – a view those of us in the Fairtrade movement strongly support. In putting forward this broader view, the policy reflects an understanding that food security is a shared agenda for all peoples and fortress-type approaches are not the way forward. Our approaches to food consumption must seek to increase food security for all and not become default protectionism.

The notion of food miles also requires reflection, as noted in the Food 2030 policy. Thinking about how far an item has travelled and the resultant carbon footprint from its transport has proved a relatively easy concept for people to grasp and for businesses to measure. However, this motivation of shoppers to reduce the environmental impact of their food consumption is at odds with the science, which shows the carbon and ecological footprints of products is overwhelmingly dependent on how they are produced, consumed and disposed of – with food miles contributing, at most, just under 10 per cent of total emissions. As the UK’s policy clearly argues, focussing just on food miles is not going to give us low-carbon, sustainable agricultural products.

The shortcomings of the food miles concept were demonstrated by the case of cut flowers in the UK in early 2007. British shops announced they would reduce purchases of cut flowers air-freighted from Kenya as part of reducing their eco-impact, giving preference to cut flowers from the UK and European neighbours.

Research quickly emerged, however, that roses grown in Kenya and flown in created less than 20 per cent the emissions of flowers imported from The Netherlands and other European producers. Local production was energy and chemical intensive, while Kenyan production used human labour, water and the sun. The transport impact was tiny in the context of the broader production calculations.

As this example shows, while food miles is an appealing concept – and one quick to gain traction with retailers and consumers because of its simplicity – the goal of a sustainable world requires us to go further.

Another recent UK report also seeks to fill in these gaps. Fair Miles: Recharting the Food Miles Map was launched by Oxfam Great Britain and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) late last year. Fair Miles takes a much broader view of the food production and sustainability systems necessary to create the kind of world we and our children want to live in. While the report looks specifically at produce trade between Africa and the UK, the same principles apply here in Australia.

The food we choose to buy is an important part of how we all contribute to creating the world we live in today and tomorrow. It will only become more important as we struggle globally to find food security with growing populations, declining ecosystems, and the impacts of global warming – while continuing to pursue a more just, fair and peaceful world for all. Our food choices are too important to allow overly simplistic messages such as food miles and buying local to dominate popular consciousness. Smarter, more relevant tools need to form the basis of our campaign for sustainable food consumption.

Cameron Neil is the former Australian Operations Manager for Fairtrade Labelling Australia & New Zealand.