Food Transport

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These days we’re able to head down to the supermarket and purchase a vast array of foods from all over the world, no longer restricted by local environmental factors and/or the seasonality of a product: you can get flowers from Africa, fruit from Europe, snacks from Asia and spices from South America. Today retailers can source food from wherever it is cheapest around the globe at the touch of a computer key.

These luxuries come at many unseen costs, thanks to the carbon emissions as a result of the production and use chemicals, the raising of livestock, the highly mechanised means of production, and the transportation, processing, packaging and retailing of food products.

But to meet this demand, our food is transported further than ever before, often by air. That makes it a major contributor to greenhouse emissions and climate change. It also means a heavy dependence on a resource that is not only finite but also highly politically-charged: oil. So our food supply is more vulnerable than before.

In many cases, Western society routinely purchases food that was grown more than 1000 miles away and transported to the local grocery store.  While food prices in the store are relatively inexpensive, the environmental cost of transporting your food is often very high. Trucks, trains, and boats, all of which consume fossil fuels, are the primary methods for transporting large quantities of food around the world.  Additionally, the transportation of these goods causes an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Many people are becoming aware of the impact that food mileage has on the environment and are choosing alternative food purchase options to reduce the distance that their food must travel to reach their plates.

Food miles
The concept of food miles, the distance food travels before being consumed, dates back to a 1994 report called “The Food Miles Report: The dangers of long-distance food transport”.

The term ‘food miles’ refers to the total geographic distance food is transported between their cultivation, processing and to the consumer at the point of sale. Put simply, it’s way of measuring how far your food had to travel to get to your plate.

In general, the contribution of food transportation relative to the total greenhouse gas emissions of a given food product represents a small percentage of the carbon footprint for many foods. Fresh foods transported by air freight can have significant distribution-related carbon impacts, but on average, distribution of finished foods (from farm or factory to retail stores) contributes less than 4%, on average, of the greenhouse gas emissions of foods consumed in the U.S.

Another challenge with relying on “food miles” as an indicator of greenhouse gas emissions or other environmental impacts is that often, the mode of transport (air, road, rail, and water) is a much more important determinant than the distance traveled. The graphic below shows the relative impacts of food transportation options:

Of course, such values are dependent on how efficiently the vehicle is loaded and will be different for products where packing into a vehicle or freight container is volume- rather than weight-limited. Other environmental impacts that are relevant to transport such as acidification potential (causing acid rain) or particulate emissions (affecting the respiratory system) associated with the burning of fuel are typically proportional to energy use and greenhouse gases.

The True Cost of Food Miles
It is estimated that the meals in the United States travel about 2400 kilometers to get from farm to plate. Why is this cause for concern? There are many reasons:

This long-distance, large-scale transportation of food consumes large quantities of fossil fuels. It is estimated that we currently put almost 10 kcal of fossil fuel energy into our food system for every 1 kcal of energy we get as food.

Transporting food over long distances also generates great quantities of carbon dioxide emissions. Some forms of transport are more polluting than others. Airfreight generates 50 times more CO2 than sea shipping. But sea shipping is slow, and in our increasing demand for fresh food, food is increasingly being shipped by faster—and more polluting—means.

In order to transport food long distances, much of it is picked while still unripe and then gassed to “ripen” it after transport, or it is highly processed in factories using preservatives, irradiation, and other means to keep it stable for transport and sale. Scientists are experimenting with genetic modification to produce longer-lasting, less perishable produce.

By emitting nitrous oxides and particulates, transportation causes air pollution. Air pollutions is considered to be the most dangerous environmental threat caused by transportation. Highway vehicles, marine engines, trains and planes are the main causes of pollution which affects air quality causing damage to human health. All these toxic air pollutant are closely related with the cause of cancer, cardiovascular (heart arteries, capillaries and veins), respiratory and neurological diseases.

How do the foods we eat affect climate change? In a talk that challenges widely-held beliefs about the climate benefits of food choices, environmental studies professor Peter Newton draws on evidence and data to show that the idea that buying local food will reduce carbon emissions is misguided. Rather, if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the food system, much greater impact would be achieved by reducing our consumption of animal products.


Under pressure from industry lobbying the national government has not introduced a carbon tax on CO2 producers. That measure alone would begin to reduce food miles. Road user charging would make the food processing industry think very carefully about their transport needs. The national government has set a target of a reduction of food miles in Britain by 20 per cent by 2012. The recent Defra report estimates costs of food miles at £9 billion each year, half of which is down to road congestion.

Local and Seasonally
By choosing locally grown produce, you can drastically cut the food miles that you consume.  Additionally, buying produce that is in season increases the chances that it is grown closer to home.  To reduce the food mile impact even further, consider starting your own garden in your backyard. By growing your own produce, you can cut the food miles from more than 1000 miles down to a couple yards.  Also, you will have more control over the chemicals and pesticides that are on your food and can eat healthier overall.

If growing your own fruits and vegetables is not an option, consider supporting the local farmers in your area instead.  You can often purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets and roadside stands. In addition to reducing your food mileage by purchasing locally grown produce, you will often notice a significant increase in the quality of the fruits and vegetables purchased locally.

Reducing your food mileage consumption, even by a little bit, can have a large impact on the environment.  If everyone chose to purchase locally grown food instead of imported food, there would be a significant drop in greenhouse gasses emitted and overall oil consumption due to food transportation.  Even a small change can help the environment.

Think About Transport Methods
It is not just the distance that a foodstuff travels that impacts upon its food miles; it is also the method of transportation. As a general rule, you should try to limit your consumption of foods that have been transported by air the most, as these are typically moved in this way as they perish quickly and have to get from producer to market as soon as possible. Long truck journeys are also significant additions to food miles as they use a lot of resources to move comparatively little product. Sea travel is arguably the most efficient and ‘green’ form of food transportation, as a lot of goods can be transported in one go, making for smaller carbon expenditure. However, this is a guideline only, as the transportation methods may be offset by the energy costs of the product’s production.