Frequent Flyer Food Miles

Spring is a season full of joy, the first leaf buds heralding an end to the traditionally lean wintertime. Yet today many of us barely notice the passing of the seasons (besides deciding whether to wear a coat outside).

Our supermarkets are full of ripe red tomatoes, plump grapes, and even juicy red strawberries all year round. It’s hard to remember that not long ago your diet would have been dictated fully by the seasons in your local area. No flying in fruit and vegetables from the other side of the globe.

Avocado (illustration by Pierre-Joseph Redouté)

To a great extent, this constant availability of whatever food might take our fancy is one of the great triumphs of modernity. After all, it can be incredibly monotonous to eat the same, limited variety of vegetables (mostly potatoes and onions) during the winter months. Now, if I want to eat an avocado in the UK during December, that’s fine. It might be a bit pricey, and the flavour might not be as intense as one bought in the summer in California, but I can still buy them at most major supermarkets. With some tomatoes imported from Spain, and a lime from Brazil, I can have guacamole in England all year round. Delicious!

But as winter turns into spring, I can’t help but wonder whether this is such a good thing after all. How do all of these vegetables travel over half of the globe, from places I can only dream of visiting? There’s been lots made recently of the carbon emissions inherent in travelling, and now many are arguing that the demand for fruit and vegetables year-round is driving an increase in carbon emissions. These so-called “food miles,” the distance that your food has had to travel to reach your plate, can be used as proxies to determine the CO2 cost of your meal.

This concept has a certain attraction— it’s reasonably easy to calculate and has the added bonus of supporting local farmers. And it would be great if it were that simple. But many researchers have argued against the concept of food miles. It turns out that a huge variety of factors can influence the carbon emissions from farming.

In fact, it’s often the case that “local” farms in developed nations have higher carbon emissions even than vegetables flown in from other countries. This can be a result of the use of carbon-intensive farming processes, whether through the use of tractors, chemical fertilisers, packaging, long-term storage, and more. In contrast, produce from smallholder farms in developing nations may be produced with fewer carbon inputs.

It turns out it’s not nearly as easy to try and shop in a carbon-friendly manner as some had hoped. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to consider carbon emissions when shopping— one of the best ways is to cut out as much dairy and meat as you can. For some, that might mean going fully vegetarian or vegan, but for others (including myself) that means just increasing the number of vegetarian meals that I cook. And sometimes, those meals include guacamole.

Featured Image from Dean Hochman


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