All over the world, people are beginning to consider the total cost of transporting food, not just in terms of dollars, but also in terms of environmental impact, highway safety, traffic congestion and other factors. Today, Britain’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) released a new report on “food miles” in the UK.
Like similar studies done in the U.S. and elsewhere, this latest study finds that food transportation has a significant and growing impact on road congestion, road accidents, climate change, noise and air pollution.
According to the DEFRA report, the environmental and social costs of the impacts are estimated at £9 billion ($15.774 billion) per year, of which £5bn ($8.763 billion) is due to road congestion, £2bn ( $3.505 billion) to road accidents, £1bn ($1.752 billion ) to pollution and £1bn to other factors.
Consumers travel an average of 898 miles a year by car to shop for food and the quantity of food transported by heavy goods vehicles (HGV) has doubled in Britain since 1974, now accounting for 25% of all HGV vehicle kilometers in the UK. The report also noted that food transport in Britain produced 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2002.
In 2002, a U.S. study (“The load less traveled: Examining the potential of using food miles and CO2 emissions in ecolabels,” Rich Pirog and Pat Schuh of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Iowa State University for The 2002 Conference on Ecolabels and the Greening of the Food Market) found that the conventional, truck-delivered wholesale/retail food buying system used four to 17 times more fuel and released five to 17 times more CO2 emissions than regional and local food distribution systems in the Iowa test area under study, depending upon the system and the types of trucks used in delivery.
The Iowa report also proposed an “ecolabel” for food that takes into account both food miles and CO2 emissions to provide consumers with a relative indicator about the transportation-related environmental impacts of their purchases. The proposed label would include data on source of the item, modes of transportation, miles the food traveled and relative environmental impact due to transport (based on CO2 emissions).