Food miles

By May 13, 2020Other

   The other night I was watching a cooking program, and part of it was about a restaurant where everything was locally sourced. The chef talked about ‘food miles’ and I decided that I would explore the concept, which is what it looks like: you should eat locally and avoid adding to the world’s carbon footprint. Now the ‘miles’ measurement came from the UK, and some time ago, but for someone in Canberra one hundred km would be the more sensible measure.

I thought about it all while I happily ate my ruby red grapefruit. My breakfast starts with half such a fruit and another fruit item, at the moment an apple or a pear. Now I could have the apple and pear sourced locally, but the ruby red would be a problem. As it happens I was eating one from the northern hemisphere, from Israel, in this case, so I wondered about the size of its food miles. Fairly soon the Australian grapefruits will come into the shops, and I’ll be able to desist from using those harvested in the northern hemisphere’s winter, usually from the USA. The Israeli ones, a wonderful surprise, have been the best I have ever eaten. 

Back to the restaurant. Another thing this chef did was to put the grower’s name on the menu, and I’ve been in other restaurants where that is the practice, which I thoroughly approve of. But to restrict yourself to only those foods harvested within a hundred km or miles does seem to me unnecessarily punitive. I could just avail myself of seafood, though those living a bit west of Yass would find that a NoNo. For them, the only appropriate fish within their 100 km radius would be trout, Murray cod and other fish gathered from inland waterways.

All tropical fruits would be out. No mangoes, pineapples, lychees, and their various cousins would be permitted. No macadamias, cashews or peanuts. No Weis bars, my summer treats. Add it all up, and you have a highly restricted diet. Meats would be okay, and grains, and stone fruits, and dairy products of all kinds, though again, not much cheese comes from our area, almonds and walnuts. Plenty of vegetables, though not in spring or the end of winter, unless you’re deeply fond of caulis and cabbages. Hmm. That reminds me of one of my mother’s quips: ‘Life is butter melon cauliflower’.

Where does all this come from? Wikipedia has a useful and (in my judgment) balanced entry on food miles, and I learned quite a bit from it. The inventor was Professor Tim Lang, in the 1990s. He is now the Professor of Food Policy (!) at London’s City University. Food-miles are part of the notion of ‘sustainability’, environmental impacts, and of course greenhouse gas emissions. There is some face logic to it. Surely the world would be better off, environmentally, if you ate salmon sourced from Tasmania than from Norway. The antagonism to food-miles aims an arrow at the globalisation of food demand and supply, which is apparently four times more prevalent than it was in 1961.

The trouble is that thinking this way gets in the way of other admirable objectives. We in Australia eat a lot of Vietnamese and Thai prawns that are farmed on the coasts of these countries. I’ve driven past what seemed like a hundred kilometres of prawn farms in Thailand. These people depend on our purchases, and our purchases help to raise the standards of living in these countries. More, eating those prawns puts less pressure on the wild prawns of our oceans, where over-fishing has reduced catches and threatened the species themselves. What is the right way to go?

Let’s think also about our own people, way up north. From memory alone, the only tropical fruit we ate in Canberra when I was a boy were bananas and pineapples. Today we also have mangoes, lychees, all kinds of fruit I first saw in Thailand in 1971, macadamias — you name it. Yes, we still  have seasons. The mangoes, alas, are finished. The first grapes come from WA and Queensland, the last ones from Tasmania. That’s an almost half-year season that runs from December to May. We are a most fortunate nation-state because we stretch from the tropics to the cold southern ocean. And we are rich enough as a society to be able to afford these fruits and vegetables, not to mention barramundi, banana prawns and other comestibles. Let us support our northern fellow- citizens and neighbours, say I!

Wikipedia has a most interesting account of the extent to which the search for overcoming food-miles is actually effective. Here’s a bit of it. To start with, if the food is processed, then working out its food-miles is really complicated. If we leave that aside for the moment, transporting food by air is much more costly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) than doing the same by a container ship. But some foods can’t use that alternative because the demand is for fresh, and Now! I’m thinking of tuna for Japan and banana prawns for us, lobsters for the Asian wedding markets, and so on.

Then there is the question of the energy used in production. One study suggested that growing tomatoes in Spain and then sending them to the UK used less energy than tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses in England. Large-scale agriculture reduces the unit-costs of food production and transportation, according to a German study. There are similar studies in other countries. On the other side, meat and dairy produce the largest amounts of GGE, and researchers suggest that moving to a vegetarian diet, even if only a part shift, does more to reduce GGE than anything to do with transport and food-miles.

Well, there you go. I eat a balanced diet anyway, enjoy vegetables and salads, and don’t eat a great amount of meat, so I think I’m doing my best there. I have no intention of giving up cheese or butter, let alone my favourite steak with sauce Dianne, for which I have to journey to a restaurant. I also want to go on eating my ruby red grapefruit halves, wherever they come from. But I found this excursion into the subject of food-miles to be an interesting one.

To conclude, I feel that the proponents of eating and sourcing food that is only harvested locally are treating themselves harshly and adding little or nothing to the imagined problem of greenhouse gas emissions. But look, we are told that ‘diversity’ is important, so I’ll go on enjoying the foods that I like, wherever they come from, and those of that persuasion can eat only locally harvested stuff. If they can be sure about actually where it comes from…

Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Karabar says:

    I was raised on a mixed farm in the Pembina Triangle located in Manitoba.
    On the table there was always one of chicken, turkey, pork, beef, lamb, duck, goose, venison, bison, moose, or pheasant.
    At any given meal there would be vegetables from the garden, either fresh or frozen, such as peas, carrots, turnip, kale, cauliflower, tomatoes, sweet corn, Brussel Sprouts, broccoli, beets, beet greens, spinach, etc. Every meal included potatoes either freshly dug, or from storage in the root cellar.
    The Red River Valley is renowned for its potatoes, and sugar beets. In the fields one can find wheat, oats, barley, sunflower, rapeseed, millet, or flax. It is known as the “Corn and Apple Belt” in Canada. Local canneries include and Heinz, Campbell’s Soup,
    Dessert was generally fresh or frozen raspberries, blueberries, Saskatoons, strawberries, cherries, peaches, or apple or cherry pie.
    Milk, cream, butter and cheese came courtesy of the family cows, excess from that sent to the local creamery.
    All of the meat was from animals that would yield little return at the market i.e. year old laying hens, runt hogs, “hiefery cow”, etc. which is just as tasty and nutritious as the grade “A” animals that went to market.
    It is difficult to contemplate the hard work my mother did in preserving all that food in summer for consumption in winter, although the production of all of this food was a family affair. The food consumed at home was simply surplus to that produced for sale, or bush tucker harvested in the local vicinity.
    Since those days the productivity of larger farming operations, agricultural technology, and global trade have raised the standard of living around the world.
    “Sustaining” oneself solely on one’s own capacity to produce sustenance is a difficult, challenging, but fulfilling row to hoe. I can well imagine that such farms existed all over Australia as well.
    As the world subsides into the Greater Depression in this decade, it is a lifestyle i would wish to adopt if I were fifty years younger.

  • Karabar says:

    Glad to see this in the conclusion “adding little or nothing to the imagined problem of greenhouse gas emissions.”
    Here is a good explanation of the insanity in this imaginary “greenhouse effect” which concept is seemingly ubiquitous.

    Paul Noel Feb 3 Former Research Scientist 6 Level 2 UAH Huntsville Al. (2009–2014)

    Why is the greenhouse effect called so?

    A greenhouse is a structure typically built in the more northern or far southern climates where it freezes. It has either glass or plastic covering to allow entry of light so that plants can grow inside.

    Much has been made of the fact that it tends to get quite warm inside such a structure. The function is that the covering (barrier) does 2 things.

    It permits entry of light into the greenhouse from outside and does provide a retention of some IR transmissions from inside by a selective frequency reflection of IR at the barrier.
    It stops the wind flow and convection from immediate cooling of the greenhouse.

    This diagram shows the function but does not show the rejection of 52% of the IR from the sun.
    Having owned a greenhouse these effects get a lot of propaganda in the discussion. Solar Spectra is approximately 52% IR and this is reflected directly off the greenhouse without entry. So warming is mostly conversion of Visible light into heating of surfaces in the greenhouse. The IR reflection values of these plastic or glass barriers is nil. Very soon after the sun goes down the Greenhouse begins to cool and if it is cold outside these structures require massive heat supplies. Note the longwave losses. This cools the house quite quickly at night.

    Most greenhouses have pretty massive heaters to warm them. Lately to save money on the heating the farmers using this structure tend to bury the walls of the greenhouse and take advantage of Geothermal lag and Geothermal heating. In fact some bury pipes fairly deeply in the ground to obtain deep earth heating for their greenhouses.

    Now that I have discussed greenhouses, the so called “Greenhouse Effect” is a bit different. The people claiming this say that CO2 gas with is about 0.041% of the atmosphere is collecting outgoing IR and re-radiating it back to the earth essentially forming the same effect you get when you sleep under a blanket. The blanket doesn’t provide any heat, you do and the blanket merely transmits the radiated heat slowly out and reflects some of it back in to keep you warm.

    This requires that there actually be a detected return of radiation from the sky. In actuality it is self evident particularly in desert regions that this is not occuring as it gets cold very rapidly at night in the desert. Humid regions tend to retain heat much longer and stay warmer at night. This is because water vapor which is typically between 0.1% and 3% of the air is known to do this effect quite well.

    Here is my weather forecast as I write this and all of the data you need to see this is obvious. Watch the green dew point line and you get everything on the lower part of the graph and you see the temperature line above. Dewpoint goes down in the day the temperature goes up and it goes down at night and the temperature drops. This is that water stops transmission of IR this way.

    But CO2 is so completely rare that it has no such effect and CO2 levels in my area do vary day/night. In January not much but in the Summer quite a bit. Due to Agriculture and Trees in my area CO2 levels in my area drop a lot in the day time in the summer. They drop by nearly 1/3.

    If you observe the spectra absorption you will see that CO2 is not even a significant factor and water overlaps the spectra so that CO2 doesn’t even have any effect.

    So the claim of a “Greenhouse Effect” for CO2 should be called a blanket effect and frankly it doesn’t even do that. What you are looking at is a marketing lie to fool you. There is no atmosphere “Greenhouse Effect” by any gas. This is all a political manipulation intended to scare you and get you to assent to silly things like carbon taxes all with the goal of the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind and from the poor to the uber rich.

    This is what one of the lead guys at the IPCC said!

    Now I could give you a lot more data and show you that there is no warming going on. I could show you data that shows that the sea levels are not rising and over very long periods of time that go back over 250 years. Maldives for example were essentially the same 250 years ago as now. Coastal areas of the USA are essentially the same as before the American Revolution in 1776!

    I could show you all sorts of other data that shows this is not going on. That isn’t the point to answer your question so I will not give that here. You have seen clearly the process described for a greenhouse. You have seen that nothing applies to any gas on this earth from that process. Anytime someone attaches a term so to something it does not apply to it is false science. What you do with this information is your business. I have faithfully represented the science and showed the terms and motives.

  • Boxer says:

    There are several lifestyle topics that may be correlated; food miles, organic food, vegetarian diets, superfoods (a new one every week, so we can look forward to a time when all non-animal foodstuff will be reclassified “super”), antivaxerism, macrobiotics, naturopathy and at the fantasy edge, homeopathy. There would be others. Many of these beliefs have a grain of truth, like the far-left and far-right political conspiracy theories. The traces of fact are often the starting point for each topic’s prophet, and they help to defend the beliefs from sceptical ridicule. My hypothesis is that, in the main, these topics appeal to neophiles. Hence the need for a new superfood, from a less developed country, every few days.

    I like food miles a little bit because I prefer to support the national economy, and we like to buy New Zealand food too because we like NZ. And the word ANZAC was not just plucked from the air. I also distrust some nations’ unregulated use of pesticides and antibiotics, and examples of additives such as raising the crude protein levels in baby formulae using melamine.

    But food miles as a transport fuel issue – very marginal ecological benefit, sometimes counterproductive, normally harmless, and sometimes becomes boring when the waiter labours the origin of every constituent of a meal (for the love of god, just shut up, go away, and let us eat our dinner!). As you mentioned Don, the energy used to heat a greenhouse in a high latitude country is likely to be greater than the energy used in transport from a country with a warmer climate. The same applies to dairy and meat production, where the figures bandied about typically come from wealthy northern hemisphere countries where dairy cattle are housed in sheds for much of their lives, and intensive feedlots to fatten ruminants are the norm. Feeding grain to a ruminant, with a feed conversion ratio of about 7:1 at best, is just wasteful, whatever the effect on the climate. Ruminants run best on cheap plant material that we can’t digest, so the normal Oz/NZ practice of running cattle and sheep on pasture is a way of producing high quality food from cellulose.

    Food miles? Take with a grain of salt, which, to be fashionable, must be mined in the Himalayas.

  • Peter E says:

    Back in 1982, we visited US friends who lived on the banks of the Hudson river about 50km out from New York City. They took us to a nearby farm (It was pleasant September weather) growing all kinds of vegetables. In the evening we piled into the Chevy and drove quickly and smoothly, with little stopping anywhere, right into the city, parked by the kerb and walked 100 metres to a fine restaurant. Here we enjoyed a magnificent repast with food supplied from all the local farms, including the one we visited. Our host explained that everything and anything he needed was all within 100 miles of where he lived, whether it be a world-leading opera performance or a fly-fishing walk in the country-side. As Lin Yu Tang said, ‘Ah, is not this happiness?’

  • Aynsley Kellow says:

    My rather cynical view is that ‘food miles’ was a convenient cloak to encourage consumers to prop up the Common Agriculture Policy – a bit like multifunctionality, where we were supposed to believe that the subsidies were not to prop up inefficient French farmers, but to preserve the character of the countryside.

  • Hasbeen says:

    Dairy farmers in my part of South East Queensland became an endangered species when “renewable” power generation made the cost of pumping irrigation water just too expensive. The last one with in about 70 kilometers of here shut down about 6 month ago.

    Now at the supermarket, when I pick up a couple of liters of milk I marvel at how light the bottle is. You see I know most of that milk now comes from eastern Victoria, & realise that 2 liter bottle of milk must contain at least 5 liters of diesel fuel that was used to produce it, & ship it so far.

    I wonder if there is any less in the powdered stuff.

    • dlb says:

      I wouldn’t have thought that renewable power has much of a share in Qld electricity supply? Perhaps deregulation of the power industry hasn’t produced the expected benefits? I am happy to be corrected on this.

      And in your part of SEQ, maybe climate change (natural or anthropogenic) is the reason for the irrigation of pasture?

      • spangled drongo says:


        There are not many places in Australia where irrigation has not always at least doubled pasture volume and increased milk production.

  • dlb says:

    A few days ago we had some “whiting” probably Southern blue whiting which are caught in the Sothern Ocean south of NZ. These were fillets but not pre-crumbed, and purchased at C or W.

    They were quite tasty, but I was astounded when on the packaging it said “Product of New Zealand & Processed in China” What a ridiculous journey! just so the consumer pays for a product a few cents cheaper, while C & W can still make a good profit margin. Wouldn’t it be better to pay a bit more for the fish and take a few people off the dole in NZ?

    I have been told with prawns it is much the same – product of Australia and packaged in China! I really think we need some sort of revolution to keep processing in Australia or NZ, but regrettably I can’t see this happening, with the current fetish for laissez-faire economics from both our main political parties.

    Like Don I have no objection to importing foods during off seasons in Australia.

    While on the subject of food I don’t think I have tasted a decent tomato, stone fruit or apple in Brisbane since the 1970s. The quality of grapes is also getting wrathful. I think this is largely driven by the large supermarkets demanding fruit that is perfect in appearance, robust to handling & picking, and suitable for cold storage for year round demand. The result is fruit which looks great but tastes like sh##. Thanks CSIRO.
    Oh our modern world is so wonderful …..Not!

  • Taieri says:

    Food miles, hmmm…I remember growing up in Northern Europe in the 1960’s when an occasional wrinkled apple in the winter was a real treat and spring onions grown in a glass jar on the window sill was something to look forward to.

    On another matter; in one of your previous posts you asked about comparison between generation of various forms of energy. I can recommend an article in Energy Policy 127(2019) “Abandoning the Concept of Renewable Energy”. Can email it to you if you can’t access it.

  • Neville says:

    Don’t forget that food miles/klms, S&W, wood chips versus coal, bio mass, EVs, stop eating meat, etc, etc is a total con and fraud, delivered by con merchants.
    Since the Paris BS and fraud the co2 levels have increased by a further 1 ppm per year. That’s from DEC 2015 to March 2020 and I’ll update from NOAA as the months roll on.
    But the con merchants and fraudsters will howl like banshees on steroids if anyone tries to provide this data and they’ll even inject even more idiocy into the mix. Like linking to a delusional talk fest video from the likes of Moore, Farrell of Ext Reb, Gibbs and Ozzie.
    Unbelievable but true that some of these donkeys actually believe this infantile nonsense, just like poor Greta, Attenborough, Labor, the Greens, the UN, etc, etc. When will these people grow up and start to act like adults?

  • Neville says:

    BTW Taieri here’s a summary of the study you mentioned on “Abandoning the concept of Renewable energy” 2019. This is from the Commonfare site and seems to be well written and as far as I can tell it is fairly accurate.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Food miles reasoning is something that any rational person applies on a level playing field but with the govt subsidies that have taken control, first following two world wars and a great depression and later for any excuse at all, any logic that could be applied gets lost in the swings and roundabouts.

    My first encounter with it was as a cream producer after WW2 where it would be logical to make your own butter from your own cream but because of govt subsidy it was always cheaper to buy it at the local shop and sell your cream to the butter factory.

    In recent decades Europe has done this with so much of its produce and the biggest example is now in renewable electricity, which is closely connected with food production.

    If only we could get rid of our Sir Humphreys [plus a huge slice of his underlings] and face life as these same people infer in many ways that we should, the world would be a more rational and logical place to live in.

  • Interesting and entertainingly written. The pedant in me wishes to correct you on eone picky point: Sauce Diane, not Dianne.

  • spangled drongo says:

    If you can believe it, food miles will no longer matter and we can be as extravagant as we like:

  • Neville says:

    Certainly we have much more to worry about than food miles when we trade with a country like China.
    Watch this editorial from the Bolt report as Andrew forensically checks out the threatening language and behavior from China towards Australia and many other countries.
    And we have the crawlers like Pallas in Victoria who actually blames us for not tugging our forelock before this communist totalitarian state.
    Let’s hope the world takes these threats on and strives to get to the bottom of this disaster and the loss of 300,000+ lives and the cost of trillions of $ in just a couple of months.
    This CV-19 disaster was not our fault and we must not surrender to the Chinese dictatorship.

    • Boambee John says:


      “And we have the crawlers like Pallas in Victoria who actually blames us for not tugging our forelock before this communist totalitarian state.”

      Remember that Victoria has signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, which China seems to be using as a debt trap to colonise less developed countries (and some more naive developed ones). And Victoria is in the process of borrowing some $25 billion for infrastructure, one of the BRI focus areas.

  • Neville says:

    Here’s the GWPF’s latest webinar on the crazy idea of net zero emissions.
    These people are recognised experts on this subject range and explore the likely outcome if we were stupid enough to follow the mad Labor and Greens parties along this delusional path towards a fraudulent and much poorer future.
    Of course none of this will somehow reduce temps or allow us to enjoy a better climate or reduce extreme weather events or reduce SLR or anything else. Just look up the OECD and NON OECD co2 data for yourselves over the last 32 years.
    I hope Don and others can spare the time to watch these very intelligent people try and explain the insanity of net zero emissions.

Leave a Reply