Food law expert reports flaws in “food miles” concept

Posted by James Ferre on 25th September 2008

A leading academic and legal expert on food believes there is a growing body of evidence to indicate that the concept of “food miles” is badly flawed and might well breach Australia’s free trade obligations if ever it was introduced as a mandatory labelling requirement nationwide.

Joe Lederman, Managing Principal of FoodLegal and Adjunct Professor of Food Law at Deakin University, advised that a growing number of supermarkets and restaurants in the UK were promoting the labelling of food products to show “food miles”, which measure the distance food is transported from paddock to point-of-sale. He said environmentalists, both in Australia and overseas, argued that freighting food over long distances consumed too much fuel and energy and released greenhouse gases which would speed up global warming.

Professor Lederman pointed to a recent US university study, which showed that 83 per cent of emissions came from the growth and production of food itself, while 11 per cent came from transportation, with only four per cent coming from transport from paddock to point-of-sale, to highlight flaws in the notion. A separate report from academics at Lincoln University in Christchurch had also established that the New Zealand dairy industry was able to produce and deliver dairy products to the UK market, generating less greenhouse gas emissions than British dairy farmers who were delivering to their own domestic market.

A third report by Dr Adrian Williams, who was commissioned by the UK Department for Food, concluded that the “food miles” concept was simplistic and misleading. Dr Williams’ report suggested that the short trips in the car by food consumers to the local supermarket to pick up the shopping might be more detrimental to the environment than the sea or air transport used to move bulk food over far greater distances. “Even the environmentally-friendly Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Studies (CERES) in Melbourne, found in a study last year that the ‘food miles’ story was pretty inadequate,” Professor Lederman noted.

“There’s also been a campaign in England waged against the importation of green beans from Kenya,” Professor Lederman added. “The point to be made is that in many areas where foods are grown more economically – such as Kenya for beans or New Zealand for dairy – the foods are grown in a much more environmentally-friendly manner using more natural fertilisers and less fuel-intensive inputs. These producers have the benefit of more natural sunlight or open farmlands, without the need for the energy and carbon-intensive farming practices which are used when farm production is concentrated closer to major urbanised centres.”

Professor Lederman said the “food miles” campaign internationally had been very intensive with petitions being made to governments, while food outlets were being pressured in various countries in the Westernised world, including Australia, to give preference to local suppliers. “My concern is that while I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage more local food production, it’s quite another thing to suggest mandatory impositions or discriminate against foods that come from a long way away,” he commented. “To suggest that food coming from far away is somehow responsible for greater environmental contamination and that the adverse environmental impact is measurable simply by ‘food miles’ is inaccurate, misleading and even deceptive.”

He went further by saying claims that food was environmentally superior on the basis that it travelled fewer “food miles” could be in breach of the Trade Practices Act, and that such claims might well need to be scrutinised closely by the ACCC.

Andrea Berteit, the CEO of the Food Industry Association of WA, said she and her members agreed that the concept of “food miles” was misleading and unhelpful. “In a State the size of WA, where food sources are so far flung and generally distant from the metropolitan market, food miles’ makes absolutely no sense,” she said. “In addition, much of our food production has to be exported since our domestic market is relatively small.”

“The recent studies cited by Professor Lederman serve as confirmation for all those in the food industry who have challenged the ‘food miles’ idea,” Ms Berteit concluded.