When it comes to food, calculating your environmental impact isn’t as easy as we once thought. Christina Bulbrook unpacks the tribulations of food miles to find out what the carbon footprint of food really looks like.
My vegie garden is a temperamental creature. I try to listen to its demands. I’ve conducted internet research on why my garlic won’t grow and why my parsley leaves are yellow. I’ve sought out the best possible solutions to the snails eating my lettuce and I’ve sat watching and waiting, carefully watering each seedling, talking to them – don’t judge me – and urging them to thrive.
Sometimes things grow. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, things don’t.
Why do I bother with all of this? Aside from the enormous joy my vegetable and herb garden brings me, and the surge of pride I experience when I tell friends that the tomatoes in the salad are home grown, it is also because I feel a compulsion to consider sustainability in my food choices.
The complex and highly subjective road towards sustainable food – taking into account food miles and food labelling in Australia – is fraught with potholes, speed bumps and the occasional red traffic light. We now know that the idea of ‘sustainable eating’ incorporates a multitude of issues, not just where your food comes from and how far it’s travelled to get here, and that sustainability (and your resulting carbon footprint) starts at the source – be that in Australia or from the other side of the world. So rather than always asking ‘is it local?’, a new crop of questions are growing: What if their production methods and the preparation of local food uses more fossil fuels and causes more environmental damage than imported produce? Do we really know where all our food is truly coming from? And, to cut out the economic middleman, should we simply take up our shovels and gumboots and just grow our own food?
The problem with food miles
Food miles, a term coined as early as 1991 by a professor of food policy at City University London, describes the distance food has travelled to reach our plates and its subsequent impact on the environment in terms of greenhouse gasses emitted. The goal of those who subscribe to the ‘food miles’ idea is to lower the number of kilometres food travels, usually by buying locally grown and produced food. On paper, this concept is perfect: less travel = less emissions. But when taking what’s happening ‘at the source’ into account, things get a little more complicated.
Alison Rothwell, PhD candidate at Western Sydney University, explains: “The validity of the concept [of food miles] depends upon numerous variables, such as [the] type of food – horticultural, grain, or processed, for example – transportation format [and] farming system.” It might not be easy to hear, but there is more to consider in the food we eat each day than merely how well travelled it is. Farming and production practices contribute to emissions, as does packaging and preparation. And even fresh food bought from the local market or grocer often needs to be cooked or prepared in a manner that will also use energy – and the efficiency of the latter is entirely up to you. “It is not productive to talk only about carbon miles when trade-offs with other environmental impacts of relevance for particular geographic areas may occur,” Rothwell says.
In reality, it is perhaps more accurate in calculating our carbon footprint based on food to consider the total energy used in the entire process of production, preparation and consumption of the food. Rothwell refers to this as, “The entire lifecycle of all inputs into the food processing system.”
The sustainable choice
What can we take away from all this? Most importantly, perhaps, is that the issue of sustainable food is inescapably subject to things we cannot control. The state of food security and environmentally sound farming in Australia and internationally is a work in progress; however, we can still make choices that make a difference. Striking a balance between supporting local farmers, eating seasonally, attempting to grow your own produce and being conscious of which ingredient you buy (imported or otherwise) will take us far. Because, ultimately, it is important to know the story of our food; to understand where it was grown, under what conditions, how far it has travelled and what has been done to it before our forks skewer it.