Food Miles

What do you think of when you read the phrase “food miles”?

Do you think of the environment? Maybe you think of how much food costs? Or perhaps you might consider the impact of the “food miles” campaign on third world economies and populations? Do you think about Australia’s international exports?

Whatever you think of “food miles” there is little doubt the shine on the environment lobby’s campaign is beginning to fade.

How \"Food Miles\" Was Born

The campaign to reduce the carbon footprint of food began with promise. The idea that food shipped or flown from overseas produced greater emissions of carbon dioxide than food produced locally appeared on the face of the argument to make sense.

“Calculating road transport alone, our shopping basket has still travelled 21,073 km, almost the whole way around Australia\'s coastline. The resulting greenhouse gas emissions estimate for all food transporting trucks carrying these 25 items on any given day is the equivalent of 2,830 cars driving for a whole year! And that\'s just for one shopping basket of 25 items.” (Community Environment Park’s Food Miles Report, 2008)

But as more and more supporters of the “food miles” campaign declared themselves locavores – people who choose to eat food only grown or produced in their local area – an increasing number of people started to decry “food miles” as food madness.

Arguments in Favour of \"Food Miles\"

1. Reduces carbon dioxide emissions of food’s freight.

2. Strengthens local economies by protecting small farms, local jobs and local shops.

3. Increases national food security.

Arguments Against \"Food Miles\"

1. Measuring the carbon dioxide emissions of food’s freight ignores the total environmental impact of food production and consumption.  CO2 emissions can be produced at every stage of the food life cycle – from seeding to harvest, processing to storage and from shopping to food preparation. For example, a New Zealand study showed carbon dioxide emissions were four times less for lamb produced in N.Z. and exported to Europe, than if produced in the E.U.

2. Local food costs more and often makes fresh fruit and vegetables prohibitive for some.

3. Ignores the environmental benefits of free trade. For example, the UK’s Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs found it can be more energy-efficient to import tomatoes by road instead of growing them in a heated greenhouse.  

4. Local food restricts eating choices to in-season fruits and vegetables.

5. Damages third world economies which rely on food exports.

6. A ruse to justify protectionism.

\"Food Miles\" and Australia

The Australian economy would suffer if consumers and governments around the world supported the “food miles” campaign.

Consider this:

Australia is considered a niche, high quality exporter of fruit and vegetables and has some supply advantages in the world market due to its ability to supply in the counter seasons to the northern hemisphere. (Horticulture Australia, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Australian Food Statistics 2005, DAFF) Australia is a big exporter of fruit and vegetables. In 2004-05 Australia sold more than $600 million worth to international markets.  

Carrots, asparagus, onions, cauliflower and potatoes were among the vegetables exported to Japan, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. Oranges, grapes and apples were among the fruits exported to the United States, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

And the Australian Trade Commission believes there are more opportunities to export apples, citrus, mangoes, stone fruits, onions and asparagus to northern hemisphere markets – specifically the United States, European Union, Hong Kong and Japan.

Change Food Production Again?

It is difficult to see how the “food miles” lobby could undo the societal and cultural changes which have accompanied the massive shift in food production and delivery in recent decades.


1. The globalisation of the food industry.
2. Fewer, larger suppliers organised to produce in bulk.
3. Much of the world’s food is now sold in supermarkets.
4. It has become increasingly popular to drive a car to the supermarket for a large weekly shop.

Australian and British Ministers Write Off “Food Miles” Campaign as a Furphy

Australian Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Minister Tony Burke reckons the “food miles” campaign is nothing more than protectionism. And last year, UK Overseas Development Minister Gareth Thomas offered to pay the major supermarkets to help them find new African suppliers in an effort to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions.

Gareth Thomas said: “If you take green beans, studies have shown there are fewer emissions from growing green beans in Africa than producing them in the European Union. The way to reduce carbon emissions is to get a post-Kyoto global deal, not penalise Africans who then can’t get their goods to market.”

Questions for Debate

What do you make of “food miles” campaign? Do you think the argument against the “food miles” campaign is solid or simplistic? Why do you think the food miles campaign has not gained much traction in Australia? Do you think it would work against Australia’s own food industry – a major exporter of food – and economy?

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