From Farm to Plate – Food Miles
PUBLISHED: 09:42 09 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:41 20 February 2013
Concerns about climate change and increased awareness of health issues are leading more of us to consider the impact of food miles. Sarah Ford hits the road to find the facts and what Somerset's residents can do to help.
The weekly shop can be a headache-inducing experience as we are bombarded with messages from all sides. First we're faced with the dilemma of whether we should support the local shop or head for the supermarket where the choices open to us can be overwhelming. There's the organic versus conventional farming debate to consider, Fairtrade, biodynamic, and then those low-salt, low-fat, low-sugar options versus the 'a little of what you fancy does you good' philosophy. And while you're at it, don't forget your five-a-day, fatty acids or your top ten Superfoods.
It feels like a trolley load of celebrity chefs have come with us too, guiding us round the aisles like a nagging conscience. Jamie reminds us what we should be feeding the kids, Hugh is imploring us not to buy that cheap chicken... it's enough to make you swear like Gordon.
How did we get here? Well, obviously the arrival of refrigerators in the 1950s and '60s allows us to do just one big shop by car and with more of us (particularly women) working full-time, people are choosing convenience food. Sustain (www.sustainweb.org), the alliance for better food and farming, consulted 90 Women's Institute members spanning 90 years of experience in buying and cooking food. It was quite clear from those conversations, especially with older women, that many food skills have been lost over recent years and that fresh food played a much bigger part in people's lives in the past.
Today we demand a wide range of exotic and out-of-season produce and the food we eat is being transported further than ever before. Sustain has demonstrated the distances involved in the distribution of fresh food by looking at a traditional meal which travelled, cumulatively, more than 24,000 miles. However, by choosing seasonal products and buying them locally, at a farmers' market for instance, or nearby shops stocking local produce, that total distance could be reduced to 376 miles - that's 66 times fewer food miles.
Alison Belshaw is the Eat Somerset Project Officer for Sustain and she says that the trends of buying ready-prepared and out-of-season produce are associated with problems such as loss of freshness, flavour and variety.
"Long-distance fruit and vegetable varieties tend to be chosen for their yield and keeping qualities, not for flavour, diversity or nutritional value. Many are harvested before they are ripe, and stored over long periods between production, packing and distribution, sometimes with post-harvest chemical treatments such as fungicides to increase shelf-life.
"Soft fruits and tender vegetables go off quickly - so those that travel long distances have to travel fast, often by air, which is the most environmentally damaging form of transport. Food transport, even if it is not by air, creates greenhouse-gas emissions that are contributing to the increasingly devastating effects of climate change. Globally, agriculture generates 30% of total manmade emissions of greenhouse gases. In the EU over 30% of the greenhouse gases from consumer purchases come from the food and drink sector.
"While buying local food and growing more of our own food will not solve these emissions, it can help make our food system less dependent on oil. However, we will always continue to import food and enjoy the food of other cultures and climates."
Since June 2006 and until March 2009 Sustain's Eat Somerset food chain project has increased trading between producer groups in and around Somerset and independent food retailers in the county, and created new markets in Bristol and Bath.
Georgie Bigg, chairman of CPRE North Somerset, says the benefits of eating local include maintaining a living agricultural landscape and a reduction in pressure for even more road building. "Also an increasing appreciation of local specialties and how they differ from inferior would-be imitations - for example, proper Cheddar cheese, Somerset cider and apple juice, salt-marsh mutton and game. Local food in season tastes better and costs less than, for example, the almost wholly tasteless strawberries flown huge distances in winter." And she believes milk should be properly labelled for the supermarket shopper. "The origin should be on the label and also where the milk has gone to be packaged, so that it is obvious if some milk is local but has travelled a very long way to be packaged and then brought back again."
A recent study by the British Market Research Bureau reveals that people's awareness of the concept of food miles has escalated to 66% (from 59% in 2007 and just 36% in 2006), and the proportion of shoppers who regularly buy British-grown fruit and vegetables continues to rise - it is now 54% (up from 50% in 2007).
Somerset farmers like Ruth Kimber have witnessed at first hand the recent change in attitudes among consumers. The former NFU County Chairman farms with her family at Charlton Musgrove near Wincanton, and with a history of farming which goes back some 300 years, the Kimbers take pride in the quality of their produce. This includes slow-grown Angus beef, Gloucester Old Spot pork and bacon, poultry, turkey, geese, chickens and ducks sold through their farm shop, local farmers' markets, the internet, as well as the Somerset Local Food Direct box scheme.
Their milk is sold to Bruton-based Wyke Farms, the UK's largest independent farmhouse cheese producer. Ruth says that despite the burden of regulations faced by food producers in recent years, some wonderful new products have appeared on the scene. "A group of people have found a way through by using the remaining low throughput slaughter-houses, box schemes and selling from farm shops and farmers' markets to enable people to buy local produce," she says. "You can talk to your producer, looking them in the eyes, and ask how they produced it, where they had it killed, whether they used fertilisers or sprays, and you will get a pretty straight answer.
"I advocate honesty so customers can make their own choice. As far as the local environment is concerned you are supporting local businesses and the people who are looking after the land. And there is a tight scheme of checks - our animals are inspected and so are we - to reassure the public and protect animal, environment and consumer. So, certainly, when you buy local food you are buying into an assured product."
Kimbers Farm Shop (closed Sunday and Monday) is on Barrow Lane and is signposted from the B3081 near Wincanton, 01963 33177, www.kimbersfarmshop.co.uk.
What can we do to reduce food miles?
• Buy fresh food when it is in season. Ask for seasonal food in your local shop, restaurant or canteen.
• Buy your fresh produce from a farmers' market. Farmers' markets are held all over the county. All produce must come from within a 40-mile radius. To find out if there is a market in your area go to www.sfmdirect.co.uk/markets/.
• Buy from a box scheme. Somerset Local Food Direct delivers food from more than 60 Somerset producers to your door: www.sfmdirect.co.uk.
• Make friends with your butcher and shopkeeper. Local stores often stock Somerset produce and your butcher will be able to tell you if the meat is local.
• Grow your own - it's a cheap and satisfying way of cutting down on the food miles. Ask your council or parish for information on the nearest allotments.
• If you cannot buy local and are only able to buy from a supermarket, the British flag tells you the food has been farmed in the UK, as does the Red Tractor symbol. Farmers Harvest Centenary Cider from Somerset-based Sheppy's is the first cider to carry the latter.
• Look out for food labelled with details of its carbon footprint. The Carbon Trust is already piloting this approach with Walkers Crisps.
• Join a food co-op so that you and your friends can bulk-buy seasonal produce at an affordable price. Somerset Community Food supports a network of community food projects in Somerset. This includes growing projects such as community gardens, distribution projects such as food co-ops, and cookery classes. They run two conferences per year and have a newsletter called 'BeansTalk'. 01458 832983,