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FactCheck: is local food good food?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 17 July 2007

In the second in our series examining the received wisdom of climate change we separate the facts from the myths on food miles.


There's no doubt that transporting food produces greenhouse gasses. So bringing food from distant countries to British supermarkets must be a 'bad thing'.

The argument runs that sourcing local food must be good, and food from distant countries must be bad. But is it as easy as that?

The debate has been summed up most succinctly in the idea of the 'food mile' - food that has travelled more miles will result in the production of more carbon dioxide. Asparagus from Lincolnshire is therefore good, and asparagus from Peru is bad.

Local food is a simple idea, and an appealingly nostalgic one. Our ancestors ate local food in the days before global warming.

But, when it comes to the impact of food, transport is not the whole story.


Transporting food accounts for only a small proportion of the carbon dioxide emissions involved in producing it. And in some cases producing food far away and transporting it can be more efficient than producing it locally.

Most eye-catchingly, a study by academics in New Zealand found that producing lamb in New Zealand was four times more efficient than producing it in the UK; the extra fertilizer and farm buildings used to produce British lamb more than balance out the cost of transport.

Not surprisingly, this study has been attacked - not least because New Zealand academics just happen to have come up with conclusions that suit New Zealand agriculture.

'A single indicator based on total food kilometres [or miles] is an inadequate indicator of sustainability.'

Producers of Welsh lamb, for example, have attacked the study for focusing solely on lowland sheep rearing, which requires more fertilisers. They say their lambs, fed on hillsides, have a lower carbon footprint.

However, a report by the UK's Department for Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs also challenged the simple connection between 'local' and 'low impact'. It found that a large proportion of the CO2 emitted by food transport happened on goods vehicles within the UK.

It also found that tomatoes grown in Spain resulted in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses in the UK - because of energy required to heat the greenhouses.

"A single indicator based on total food kilometres [or miles] is an inadequate indicator of sustainability," the report concluded.

FactCheck rating: 4


Professor Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, and one of the people who introduced the concept, defends the scheme.

"I have been an academic and a think tanker for decades. You can have as much evidence as you want, but to have an impact you have to capture people's minds and hearts and brains - and this concept has been more successful than I ever dreamed of."

There's something to be said for a simple conceptual framework that helps consumers to get a better sense of the impact produced by their food - and the food miles concept has certainly made a big impact in the public imagination.

And, as a rule of thumb, food that has travelled a long way will probably have required more greenhouse gasses to be emitted than food that hasn't.

But food miles certainly don't tell the whole story. Seasonality is important; eating apples when they're in season in Britain - in the autumn - will have a lower impact than eating them in the spring.

In spring, apples will have either been imported or stored for long periods at low temperatures - which produces CO2.

The process of analysing a food's lifetime impact is extremely complex, and the assumptions made at the beginning will largely influence the result.

Likewise, people who really want to reduce their carbon footprint should consider eating less meat. Protein from meat generally has a larger footprint than vegetable protein, and methane produced from livestock's digestive process is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

In any case, the climate impact is not the whole story. Communities in developing countries may depend on international food exports for their livelihood. So ecological concerns and poverty reduction may find themselves at loggerheads.

Given all these concerns, what is a poor confused consumer to do? In May, the government announced plans to introduce a new labelling scheme, which would label food with its carbon content in the same way that foods are labelled with nutritional information.

This is bound to be controversial. The process of analysing a food's lifetime impact is extremely complex, and the assumptions made at the beginning will largely influence the result; so groups who don't like what comes out will be able to attack the methodology.

In any case, an ecological strategy based entirely on food miles would never work. But keeping down the distance food has to travel does have a role to play.

How ratings work

Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.


Food Miles: Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand's Agriculture Industry
Defra report: The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development

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