It is quite common nowadays to find the term 'food miles' buzzing around the media, even though some people do not quite understand what exactly this means. Here is the concept: food miles determines the distance that fruit and veg cover in order to reach the other side of the planet and stock our local supermarkets' shelves. This explains why we are able to buy and eat cherries and other off-season greens in the middle of January.
This kind of production and distribution of food goes in contrast with what our grannies used to do: grow their own vegetables and fruit in the garden, therefore eating only seasonal produce. Unfortunately, what is happening now is a relentless transit of veg and fruit around the globe, which is having a dramatic carbon impact on the planet earth.
It is not so simple to know exactly how to best reduce our CO2 impact on the earth, reasons why it would be good to have a clearer understanding of the differences between shipping and air freight, import versus heated greenhouses and so on.
Import vs. heated greenhouses
If you think that the best way to reduce carbon footprint would be the 'Buy British' policy, you might be wrong.
Buying British is often advisable as it creates jobs that boost the national economy, however there are some fruits and vegetables that must be grown in greenhouses and therefore require a great deal of energy. These products can generate up to three times more emissions that the same item, grown in Spain or any other sun blessed country. Especially when purchased in the winter, the tomatoes we use for our salads and lunchtime sandwiches are very likely to have a considerably large carbon price tag attached. In this sense, trying to reduce to the very minimum the amount of fruit and veg that is not in season would be a good way to cut carbon emissions, regardless of whether the particular produce is grown in a greenhouse in the UK or imported from another country.
Air freight vs. shipping
What's better, air freight or shipping? Shipping, apart from being in the majority of the cases more cost-effective, also releases less CO2 emissions in the air compared to aircrafts. For this reason, the majority of the products imported in the UK are shipped, resulting in a relatively low carbon emission. Having said that, it would also be important to remind people that, if we only buy products that have been grown within our borders, the emissions coming from the transportation would be slashed dramatically.
Air freight: no thanks!
More specifically, air freight by weight could release up to 180 times more emissions than shipping. Figures appear even more alarming if we take into consideration the fact that air freight, which accounts for only 2% of the total import, generates approximately 50% of the entire carbon footprint deriving from transporting fruit and veg to the UK.
Solution: avoid buying air-freighted, highly-perishable foods such as out-of-season baby corn, strawberries and asparagus.
Better being vegetarian?
Absolutely yes! Even though vegetables, as well as fruit can be, if imported, a high producer of carbon emissions, their CO2 emissions are far from the figures deriving from meat. In fact meat tends to produce up to 13 times more CO2 than veg and the same goes for dairy products. This does not necessarily mean that we have to ban the consumption of these products altogether, but we should at least try to reduce it.
The most important thing is to keep a balanced diet, without relying too much on one particular product and trying to buy only in-season produce, preferably grown within the same country of residence and reduce air-freighted, out-of-season greens whenever it's possible.
Possible solutions that could help us monitor our energy consumption more effectively in the future include labelling products to better display the CO2 produced by transporting a particular item. For those who have the capabilities, growing your own fruit and veg could go a long way in reducing your carbon emissions.