Super local food, and yet there are many food miles on your plate

‘Flew in,’ the woman said sparingly to the man who handed her a bowl of blueberries. A word, but uttered with enough disapproval to make the man run away with his berries. He put the tray back and went back to the orchard to look for the country of origin of the pears.

Many consumers are quite concerned about where their food comes from. And supermarkets apparently too. At an organic store, there was a sign on the sidewalk that said their avocados came by boat. Lidl announced in November that it would be the first supermarket to stop flying fruit and vegetables to reduce CO2reduce transport emissions.

Flying is clearly the most polluting form of transport. CO2emissions per kilo of food is about fifty times higher than when transported by ship. So it’s better to stop flying in green beans, sugar snaps and blueberries.

Transport is also part of the scientific debate about the impact of our food. As you read, you come across staggering numbers. Since 1995, global food trade has more than doubled. Imported food accounts for an average of one-fifth of the calories consumed. And as is often the case: The rich have a larger footprint than the poor. The 12.5 percent of the world’s population who live in rich countries are responsible for 46 percent of emissions from food transport.

Food miles account for nearly 20 percent of all food chain emissions worldwide, researchers reported last June via Natural food based on new calculations. And that is 3.5 to 7.5 times more than previously thought. For fruit and vegetables, transport even accounts for more than a third of total emissions – provided that fruit and vegetables are transported refrigerated.

The article contains a world map with a jumble of food movements. You would feel out of breath just from the miles you had traveled to get China to eat meat. The researchers’ conclusion: In a world of abundance, we should produce more locally and vegetal. The key lies in the purchasing behavior of consumers.

The results did not go unnoticed. “The new study shatters the previously widely held assumption that emissions from food transport dwarf the damage from food production itself,” wrote Fidelity e.g.

Criticism came immediately. Because what are we really talking about when it comes to food miles?

The Australian and Chinese researchers wanted to distinguish between food transport and food miles. They didn’t just look at the transport from producer to consumer – the usual way of calculating. They also included the kilometers it takes to produce food at all, from the beginning of the chain. Fuel, feed, seeds, pesticides, artificial fertilizers and machinery also travel around the world. So many kilometers have already been traveled before the food leaves the farm, which also results in emissions. All these elements of the supply chain together account for more than half of the total food kilometers.

Local fertilizer

But what are you going to do with that sum? If you bring food production closer to home, you don’t necessarily lose the kilometers around it. Just look at the Brazilian soy that is needed to produce meat and dairy products in the Netherlands, or at the raw materials for fertilizer that are shipped around the world. You can eat super local sauerkraut with sausage and still have thousands of food kilometers on your plate. Local food is not the solution.

Some critics say that the cynical consequence of this inclusive food mileage is that it is best to produce food in countries where pesticides and fertilizers come from, so that they do not have to travel. Or that each country will produce its own pesticides and fertilizers: it produces more CO2profit than just keeping the food in place.

There is much that is not mentioned on the packaging in the supermarket

If you only look at the transport between producer and consumer, you get a completely different picture. In that case, emissions from transport will amount to approximately 5 percent of the total amount. Also good to know: domestic transport leads to much more emissions than international food flows. Not only because trucks emit more per kilo of food than ships. Also because almost all world trade takes place by sea and almost everything local and regional by land.

If you keep food transport separate from the rest, you see that other things are usually much more important than transport. Think about land use (deforestation), waste and how polluting or efficient the farmer is. What you eat is often more important than where it comes from. At the risk of becoming a cliché: bananas from Panama are better than steak from a local farmer if you care about CO2emissions to do.


When push comes to shove, the differences of opinion may not be so great. In any case, the Australian and Chinese researchers made an attempt to show that the existing definition of food miles takes too little account of the consequences of a highly globalized food system. In response to the criticism, they also pointed out why it can really be useful to include all external food miles. Because isn’t it strange that everything needed to produce food is included in the retail price, but not in the emissions figures? A broader definition of food miles can be a start if you are considering CO2 would like to charge.

Consumers, meanwhile, are hardly the wiser. They obediently look for the country of origin on the packaging in the supermarket, but then they don’t know anything yet. Not how it was transported, whether it was cooled along the way and certainly not what else goes into a bowl of pears or a box of blueberries. Most of it is not mentioned on the packaging.

A little more about flying. Lidl is making a good impression by stopping flying in fruit and vegetables, but does not want to say what part of its range comes by air. Less than 10 percent, they say. It’s probably more like 1 percent. At least it is at Albert Heijn. The vast majority come by road, half from the Netherlands. And the organic shop with its unpeeled avocados? Nothing special. Most avocados already come to the Netherlands by boat.

It’s fine to approach consumers about their behavior, but then they need to know what to watch out for. The supermarket doesn’t always help with that.

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