Air miles are the environmentalist’s devil incarnate. Responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions, if the aviation industry were a country, it would be ranked as one of the top 10 emitters. Yet, for all their ecological damage, we can’t live without them. Without these fossil-fuel guzzling, carbon dioxide emitting, flying metal tubes, we wouldn’t have tomatoes between the end of July in one year and the start of May in the next. Strawberries would be a couple month phenomena. And oranges, bananas and precious avocados would be off the shelves until the one questionably not-negative side effect of global warming makes it possible to grow tropical fruits in our English countryside.
The one solution to crack down on food miles is to engineer the seasonal growing conditions to make plants produce fresh fruits and vegetables all year round. Through temperature controlled sealed indoor environments, fresh summer produce can be grown on British soil in the depth of winter to meet demand and reduce air miles. But the amount of energy needed to maintain temperatures above 20 degrees Celcius forces the question; are artificial conditions more environmentally damaging than flying produce across the world? Other scenarios like the seasonal storage of produce when harvest is greater than demand, the efficiency of animal rearing for meat production, and international strictures that encourage lower emissions in exporting countries all play a significant role in the sustainability of our food supply.
A 2013 study by The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment looked into the sustainability of these food import and export riddles. Seven foods across different types from soft fruit to long-stored produce to meat were accessed by their lifecycles. Far from the overstated emissions from freight transport, produce was also graded on energy use, impact on the local natural environment, the influence of pesticides, land use, and effect on nearby marine habitats.
The results concluded unsurprisingly that homegrown and produced potatoes, apples, and beef had far less environmental impacts than being imported. This somewhat explains our culinary expertise in pies, stews and crumbles. But in spite of the polluting costs of flying in goods, importing into the UK tomatoes and strawberries from Spain, chicken from Brazil and even lamb from New Zealand is less environmentally damaging than producing them on our own soil. Due to the more productive lands in foreign countries for these foods and the reduced need for out-of-season storage which can become incredibly energy intensive, the aggregated environmental impacts of imported foods are more often than not less than our own.
Despite growing concern about where our food is coming from, the well-meaning but ill-prepared investigation onto the labels of our products when we shop picking out those closer to home, may not be the most sustainable decision. When there are more environmental factors than just plane emissions in the mix, perhaps looking for the little red-tractor on anything other than the ingredients for a very British stew is not as ethically benign as you would be led to believe.