The carbon footprint of our food

Shipping fish from British waters that is destined for our dinner tables half way round the world to be processed and back again? That would be pointless, but it’s common practice! Food campaign charity, Sustain, reports that imported fish products (sometimes incorrectly marketed as UK-produced), may travel up to 18,000 miles before reaching our supermarkets. Sustain says, “Consumers are being left in the dark. They want to know how many food miles are on a product and how it has been produced”.

How are food miles calculated?

The term food miles was coined by Professor Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University, in the 1990s. It’s a term that most of us understand to be the distance our food travels from the point of production to our tables and the associated CO2 emissions from transportation – but there’s a bigger picture here. Expert studies also factor in the environmental impact of agricultural methods, food processing, storage and our shopping habits (the “lifecycle carbon footprint”).

According to the Food Industry Sustainability Strategy, the food industry alone accounts for:

  • about 14% of energy consumption by UK businesses and 7 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year
  • about 10% of all industrial use of the public water supply
  • about 10% of the industrial and commercial waste stream
  • 25% of all HGV vehicle kilometres in the UK

Responsible food producers and supermarkets are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint and have adopted corporate sustainability policies, but is this happening fast enough?

The EU Agri-Food Chain unit, which researches into the challenges of feeding a world population that will reach 9 billion by 2050, says that global food production needs to increase by 70%.  The stark reality is that we have very little time to change the unsustainable ways in which the developed economies currently source, transport and distribute food. There needs to a major, collaborative effort between regulators, food producers, suppliers and consumers if we’re to get anywhere close to a low carbon supply chain in time.

Our eating habits – and their impact on food miles

Food rationing only came to an end in Britain in 1954.  1950s homemakers, who had grown up during the war, were used to making the most out of very limited ingredients and knew how to cook from scratch. “Waste not, want not” was a deeply ingrained habit. Although fruit and vegetables had never been rationed, some imports were in short supply, so many people grew their own.  Our health may have been better back then, but British food certainly had a reputation for being bland and boring.

Food boredom was swept away in the 1960s – coinciding with cheaper air travel and migration, which gave us the opportunity to tempt our appetites with new dishes from all around the world. Food processing changed radically too with the introduction of new artificial ingredients for longer shelf life and a host of new pre-packaged foods. With the opening of the UK’s first out of town superstore in 1964, convenience had arrived.

As our tastes have changed, so have our expectations. We enjoy eating out of season foods, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, all year round, but these are our largest import group, often flown in by air.

Air freight is used for 1.53% of food imports – although air-freighted produce accounts for less than 1% of total UK food miles, it generates around 11 per cent of the total CO2 emissions from UK food transport. Air transport generates 177 times more greenhouse gases than shipping for example, and according to DEFRA, it’s the fastest growing way of moving food around.

Working patterns and the availability of a huge range of take-away choices mean that we depend on pre-packaged foods more than is good for us, racking up the food miles again in the process. The finished product is likely to have traveled around several processing plants before it reaches the supermarket shelves.  The meat in your burger may have already traveled 7,000 miles from Argentina and that’s before any processing…

We expect all this convenience at the best possible price – and that contributes to food miles because producers and packagers will go where labour costs are lower to stay competitive.

Changing behaviours

On the upside, we’re probably more environmentally conscious than previous generations – vegetarianism and veganism are now mainstream, you can “eat local” courtesy of local markets and farm shops, or grow your own – the allotment movement is booming:

That’s encouraging, but despite our good intentions, we waste tonnes of food every year at every step in the supply chain, and that increases our carbon footprint.  At home, we might think of food as organic and try to compost as much as possible, but tonnes end up in landfill. Rotting food takes years to break down, creating methane, a “greenhouse gas” that contributes to global warming, in the process.

If we waste less food, we’ll buy less, and apart from the benefit to our pockets, there’s less packaging to deal with.

  • In total, food waste in the UK is estimated to be 18-20 million tonnes. Although household food waste makes the largest single contribution (8.3 million tonnes) more than half of this is food wasted in the supply chain. (WRAP)
  • Every tonne of food waste prevented has the potential to save 4.2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Ibid). This is from both the emissions
    released when making the food, as well as the methane released when it decomposes in landfill.

You can read more about the issues behind the statistics at

Recycling as much packaging as possible also helps to reduce the carbon footprint of food.  If you’re not sure whether you can recycle those take-away containers, foil, plastic milk bottles, cartons and more, our handy Agile@HOME app gives you an easy visual guide. You can also find out when your next collection takes place and let your council know if there’s a collection problem if they’re a subscribing partner.

Whilst it may not be practical to grow your own or shop locally, Agile@HOME is one easy way to help reduce your carbon footprint.

The UK’s 2050 climate change targets aim for an 80% reduction in our current per head carbon emissions of 11.9 tonnes (food, travel, heating etc.) down to 2.4 tonnes per person – and given the challenge of feeding 9 billion people, there’s a lot resting on our will for change.

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