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January 04, 2007

Food Miles Research

Given the clamouring from Jim for evidence into my assertions about food miles, this paper from DEFRA is interesting. I've only skimmed the executive summary but of the £9 billion supposed cost of the supermarket's distribution system £5 billion is assigned to congestion, £ 2 billion to accidents. 48% of food miles are assigned to car travel...that is, people going to buy the stuff, not supermarkets transporting it so it can be bought.

Today's paper (somewhere) stated that there are 600 farmer's markets in the UK. There are more supermarkets than that. It would appear to be a safe assumption then that people must travel further in their car to get to a farmer's market than they do to a supermarket.

CO2 costs are lumped in with infrastructure and so on in the remaining £ 2 billion of costs.

Further:

Transport efficiency. There is a trade-off between transport distance, vehicle size and transport efficiency. The current dominant system of food supply in the UK involves large HGVs travelling long distances between suppliers and shops via centralised distribution centres. However, this system enables very efficient loading of vehicles, which reduces the impacts per tonne of food. More local
sourcing can greatly reduce the distance travelled by food, but the reduction in transport impacts may be offset to some extent by the use of smaller vehicles or lower load factors. We recommend further research into this issue.

As I said, I look forward to the Boy Dave (M) publishing the full igures because then we'll know, won't we?

Differences in food production systems. The impact of food transport can be offset to some extent if food imported to an area has been produced more sustainably than the food available locally. For example, a case study showed that it can be more sustainable (at least in energy efficiency terms) to import tomatoes from Spain than to produce them in heated greenhouses in the UK outside the summer months. Another case study showed that it can be more sustainable to import organic food into the UK than to grow non-organic food in the UK. However, this was only true if the food was imported by sea, or for very short distances by road.

Yes, indeed, let's get all those externalities included in hte costs of foods and then let the market rip. Yes, it can indeed be true that importing food, that increasing food miles, reduces CO2 emissions. 

January 4, 2007 in Environmentalism | Permalink

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Comments

Isn't this going to be a rather large extension of government when an army of government inspectors crawl over all our imports, as well as home production, to calculate the externalities (CO2 and others) and then levy taxes equal to those?

Posted by: Matthew | Jan 4, 2007 11:19:57 AM

Farmer's markets aren't very efficient because they are a supplement to a main shop. They are more about leisure than food.

You get some really good cheese and bacon at them though.

Posted by: Tim Almond | Jan 4, 2007 11:41:31 AM

Matthew, there would be no need for Pingu tax on the food itself. If the fuel used to transport the food in Pingued, then anything else would be double taxation.

Posted by: Josh | Jan 4, 2007 12:19:53 PM

And the fuel for tractors, heating etc, plus other externalities such as pesticides etc. But also I think Tim's position is that fuel used for international transport cannot be Pigoued, for various reasons.

Posted by: Matthew | Jan 4, 2007 12:45:46 PM

If driving to buy food is inefficient, presumably the farmers' markets would be cleaning up.

Posted by: Johnathan Pearce | Jan 4, 2007 12:50:46 PM

There is an article in The Economist about this:
(http://economist.com/business/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8380592)

"The term “food mile” is itself misleading, as a report published by DEFRA, Britain’s environment and farming ministry, pointed out last year. A mile travelled by a large truck full of groceries is not the same as a mile travelled by a sport-utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad. Instead, says Paul Watkiss, one of the authors of the DEFRA report, it is more helpful to think about food-vehicle miles (ie, the number of miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) and food-tonne miles (which take the tonnage being carried into account).

The DEFRA report, which analysed the supply of food in Britain, contained several counterintuitive findings. It turns out to be better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter, for example, than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Britain. And it transpires that half the food-vehicle miles associated with British food are travelled by cars driving to and from the shops. Each trip is short, but there are millions of them every day. Another surprising finding was that a shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.

Research carried out at Lincoln University in New Zealand found that producing dairy products, lamb, apples and onions in that country and shipping them to Britain used less energy overall than producing them in Britain. (Farming and processing in New Zealand is much less energy intensive.) And even if flying food in from the developing world produces more emissions, that needs to be weighed against the boost to trade and development."

Posted by: ivan | Jan 4, 2007 2:24:21 PM

Interesting note about the externalities, but an illogical conclusion "Yes, it can indeed be true that importing food, that increasing food miles, reduces CO2 emissions."

Travelling to the shop (supermarket or otherwise) may be the major contributor, but it is not a variable (at least not a variable which is a function of the source of the vegetables in that shop!). If supermarkets stocked locally sourced food that would reduce CO2 emissions. Quite straightforward really.

Tim adds: you did see the other bit that showed that even after the import costs, lamb from New Zealand has lower emissions than lamb from the Uk?

Posted by: TheIrie | Jan 4, 2007 2:29:46 PM

I did not. I see from Ivan that the economist says it can use less energy - but that's not the same as CO2 emissions. Where does it say CO2 emissions from imported New Zealand lamb are lower?

Posted by: TheIrie | Jan 4, 2007 2:51:37 PM

I see. Nevermind, don't be embarrassed.

Posted by: TheIrie | Jan 4, 2007 4:20:05 PM

The relevant fact here I think is that using "less energy overall" is the most efficient and cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions. That is at least the general view. So if international trade leads to less energy use it also is the most effective way to reduce CO2-emissions. Of course CO2-emissions could sometimes increase if for instance New Zealand uses less clean energy sources than Britain, producing more CO2-emissions per unit of energy. But the fact remains that on average it's more cost-effective to use less energy instead of investing in renewable sources.

Posted by: ivan | Jan 4, 2007 6:47:02 PM

Using less energy overall is not necessarily the most efficient* and cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions. It depends on the energy source.

A kilo of tomatoes grown in spain where they don't need to be kept in heated greenhouses but do need to be shipped can be more CO2 efficient because the energy used in growing them, and presumably Spanish tomatoes need the same amount of energy as British ones, is cleaner.

Were the greenhouses heated by a clean energy source the situation would reverse.

*assuming you mean economic efficiency not pure energy efficiency, but its a bit of redundant statement if you did.

Posted by: Henk Van Vleck | Jan 4, 2007 7:22:55 PM

"It would appear to be a safe assumption then that people must travel further in their car to get to a farmer's market than they do to a supermarket."

No it would not. Attendance at farmers markets is not yet compulsory, so those 600 markets serve not the whole country but 600 fairly limited catchment areas. From today's Times:

"It is not only the food and the farmers that travel a smaller distance, so too the buyers. A study of an Edinburgh market reported that a high proportion of visitors lived within a two-mile radius, a “fair proportion” coming on foot."

This is not surprising. Unlike farmers markets, which are usually located in town centres, supermarkets tend to have loads of parking spaces and are often located out of town.

The Times article also points out that farmers don't process and package their food like the supermarkets do, so all that energy required to (for example) manufacture, transport and apply (and eventually for the consumer to discard) the packaging for a few tomatoes is saved.

So it looks like farmers markets are indeed more energy efficient overall.

Posted by: Jim | Jan 4, 2007 10:01:22 PM

Tim, that paper for DEFRA is interesting.

However, there is at least one oddity.

Table E1, for example, counts in both social costs of UK food transport to overseas (£443m in 2002) as well as social cost of food transport from overseas to UK (£1048m). Surely these should be netted out not added together.

Otherwise there is some risk of double counting. It just doesn't seem to make sense to me in terms of either balance of payments, of polluter pays, or of standing in a cost benefit analysis.

Any thoughts?


Tim adds: I'm afraid I'm still on dial up so I haven't gone through that whole paper, no.

Posted by: stephen c | Jan 4, 2007 10:24:25 PM

Jim,

"It is not only the food and the farmers that travel a smaller distance, so too the buyers. A study of an Edinburgh market reported that a high proportion of visitors lived within a two-mile radius, a “fair proportion” coming on foot."

Edinburgh has a concentrated population. Try doing the same survey in one of the farmers markets in rural Wiltshire.

"The Times article also points out that farmers don't process and package their food like the supermarkets do, so all that energy required to (for example) manufacture, transport and apply (and eventually for the consumer to discard) the packaging for a few tomatoes is saved."

The veg man at my local farmers market doesn't sell his produce with packaging, but the sellers of cheese, sweets, chicken, beef, fish, sausages and bacon all do. Most supermarkets sell tomatoes loose, too.

Posted by: Tim Almond | Jan 5, 2007 9:39:57 AM

Edinburgh has a concentrated population. Try doing the same survey in one of the farmers markets in rural Wiltshire.

..or on a supermarket in rural Wiltshire.

Anyway, the essential problem with Tim's argument is that he is arguing that there should not be more farmers' markets from evidence that is a consequence of there not being more. This is logically equivalent to saying in 1890 or so - These new-fangled motor cars carry only an insignificant percentage of passenger miles, therefore they are useless and this Benz chappy should hop off back to Germany.

Tim tends to argue in this manner quite frequently, notably with regard to ESOTN (Energy Sources Other Than Nuclear).

Tim adds: That last line is slightly unfair. I'm the only person I know who has actually spent their own money on subsidising research into alternative energy systems (SOFCs in my case) and I'd wager a decent sum that I'm the only person you or any other reader of the blog knows who has done that either.

Posted by: Alex | Jan 5, 2007 10:16:45 AM

Not as unfair as the rest of your argument.

Posted by: Alex | Jan 5, 2007 1:10:05 PM

Alex,

"..or on a supermarket in rural Wiltshire."

Yes. Supermarkets or farmers markets. If you live in a small village, you have to travel a long distance. If you live in a town, you don't.

I'm just questioning the use of the facts.

Posted by: Tim Almond | Jan 5, 2007 2:13:24 PM

"Try doing the same survey in one of the farmers markets in rural Wiltshire."

Like Alex said, the same applies to supermarkets. Besides, I'm not saying that farmers markets will always be more efficient for anyone everywhere, just that they will probably be more efficient for towns and city centres than supermarkets, which Tim is denying.

"the sellers of cheese, sweets, chicken, beef, fish, sausages and bacon all do."

Fair enough, but in my experience packaging at a farmers market is usually much less than you get in a supermarket, and they don't chuck out so much produce because it doesn't 'look right' either.

Posted by: Jim | Jan 6, 2007 11:31:30 AM

Tim,

I've found the report to which you refer:

http://statistics.defra.gov.uk/esg/reports/foodmiles/execsumm.pdf

It does NOT say that less CO2 is produced by producing lamb in NZ and shipping it to the UK. In fact, it doesn't even mention it. As for a report produced in NZ claiming that it is - well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

I can understand that growing tomatoes in a warm country and shipping them here rather than growing them in heated greenhouses might involve lower CO2 emissions. But comparing food produced by different methods abroad where exactly the same methods can be used here, is a spurious comparison. Please explain to me exactly how lamb can be produced in NZ by methods involving lower emissions than can be used here. I'm all ears.

Tim adds: By using different methods of production perhaps?

Posted by: HJHJ | May 29, 2007 1:39:43 PM