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food mile

noun [countable] [usually plural]

the distance that a food item travels from the place where it is produced to the place where it is eaten

'We bought a basket of 20 fresh foods from the major retailers on one day last month and tracked the food miles it had clocked up. We found apples from America; pears from Argentina; fish from the Indian ocean; lettuce from Spain; tomatoes from Saudi Arabia; … Our total basket had travelled 100,943 miles.'

The Guardian 10th May 2003

Those lovely, red, summer-ripened fruits must have travelled so that you could eat them out of season …

Amid concerns about the environmental impact of transporting food across the world in order to meet consumer demand, in recent years we have started measuring food miles, the distance a food travels from source to consumer. According to statistics presented in the Guardian article cited above:

'Importing one kilogram of out-of-season strawberries from California is the equivalent of keeping a 100-watt light bulb on for eight days.'

Now that's 'food for thought'!

Food miles represent the distance a food travels from its source, i.e. the farmer who grew or produced it, to the consumer who finally eats the food. This distance includes the journey from farm to processor, the journey from processor to retailer and the journey from retailer to consumer. Though the expression is used mainly in the context of discussions about the environmental impact of transporting food long distances, there are other issues raised by food miles too, such as maintaining food freshness and quality, sustainability of third world agriculture (e.g. the routine felling of rainforests in order to plant crops), and the potential security risks posed by importing food from 'unstable' countries.

some experts now take the view that carbon emissions caused by air freight represent only one factor in the 'environmental footprint' of the food systems of rich nations

People who want to cut food miles are usually advised to buy from local producers where possible, eat seasonally, and to look more carefully at country-of-origin labels on food products so that they can choose their purchases accordingly. Recent research however has suggested that the ethical issues surrounding food miles are more complex than they first appeared. Choosing to buy locally could undermine the economic development of third world countries who rely on export horticulture. A 2005 report by Defra (the British Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) showed that it is less environmentally friendly to grow British tomatoes than it is to import tomatoes from Spain, because the energy needed to heat the glasshouses for growing tomatoes in Britain is significantly more than the energy used in transporting tomatoes from Spain.

Some experts now take the view that carbon emissions caused by air freight represent only one factor in the 'environmental footprint' of the food systems of rich nations. They argue that consumers trying to buy ethically should look further than food miles, and think more about fair miles, i.e. how and where food is produced and not just the distance it has travelled.

Background – food mile

The expression food mile first emerged in the early nineties, but it has gained currency more recently in the context of escalating concerns about climate change and global warming. It is modelled on expressions like air mile, a unit for measuring how far a plane travels, and nautical mile, a unit for measuring distances at sea.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 12th April 2007.

Open Dictionary

major on (doing) sth

to have or do a lot of something; to focus on a particular thing

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