From Farm to Plate: Why You Should Worry About the Distance Your Food Travels

Vanishree M ( is with the ICAR-National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal; and Sendhil R ( is with the ICAR-Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research, Karnal.
27 September 2018

“Food miles” refers to the distance a food travels from the farm where it has been grown to the location where it is being consumed, or the distance a food travels from farm to plate. It is one of the methods for evaluating the sustainability of the global food system. Food miles argue for supporting the consumption of local produce and discriminates between long-travelled and short-travelled foods for sustainable development. 

The global food system has witnessed a significant change in the methods of food production, storage, distribution and consumption in the recent past. This change can be attributed to the use of more sophisticated distribution systems to meet the demand for food by the consumers, minimising food wastage and maintaining the quality of food. The concern here is that the vast distance a food travels from field to plate makes it more vulnerable to fuel supply, inefficient on per calorie basis and is unsustainable in the long run. Many of these problems can be addressed by creating regional and local food systems which encourage the production and use of local produce. Seasonality in food production is gradually becoming an old concept because consumers expect all produce to be available at their disposal at any time. The demand of the consumer has a serious concern for environment when food items travel from long distances to reach their destination. Transportation and refrigeration consumes more fossil fuels, which in turn emit various greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) which has a negative effect on the environment. This environmental pollution is mainly due to the transportation of food over long distances which can be captured by the distance and mode of transport, also known as “food miles.”

The Concept of Food Miles

The concept of food miles originated in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom. It was conceived by Tim Langat at the Sustainable Agriculture Food and Environment (SAFE) Alliance and first appeared in The Food Miles Report: The Dangers of Long-distance Food Transport, researched and written by Paxton (1994). 

The concept of food miles is one of the factors used to assess the impact of environmental and regional development owing to food transport, including the impact of global warming.

Food miles are a measure of how far a food item has been transported from its site of production to its site of consumption (Rama and Lawrence 2008). It has both environmental and regional development concerns coupled with measuring the food transport and consequent pollutants released by transportation of the food items. Higher food miles consume greater amounts of energy and have a complex impact on the food system, such as energy use and contribution to climate change, dependence on fossil fuels, traffic, and congestion, as well as social and economic impacts on rural communities.

Road, air, rail and sea transport produce 60%, 20% and 10% of the world's food transport carbon emissions, respectively (Food Miles Report 2005). Food miles are an important part of the environmental footprint of food production and consumption. Typically, it is a part of the concept of sustainable community and useful for judging the environmental impact of specific food purchases.

Food miles can be taken as a guiding tool to assess the sustainability in food production and consumption (Van Passel 2010). It is a simple statistical technique that can be used to measure the ecological importance of local foods and has become a convenient indicator of sustainability of the food system.

Measurement of Food Miles

Capturing food miles is a complicated process unless we have sufficient statistics on transport systems vis-à-vis the food item under consideration. Weighted average source distances (WSDA) and weighted total source distances (WTSD) (Carlsson-kanyama, 1997) are used popularly to calculate food miles which are generally measured in tonnes-kilometres, that is, the distance travelled in kilometres multiplied by weight of foodstuffs in tonnes. The CO2 emissions are calculated by multiplying distance travelled of each ingredient, by carbon intensity of the mode of transport (sea, air, road and rail). The issue in calculation of food miles, in a majority of cases, is that sometimes the value may be overestimated as the transport, especially by air and sea, includes more than the food items under consideration. So, apportioning has to be done exclusively for the food alone which is a tedious task with the existing metrics.

The fundamental cause for the increase of food miles is due to the globalisation of the food industry and increasing concentration of the food supply chain from larger suppliers in order to meet the demand of the country’s population year-round by increasing the size of imports and exports worldwide. For example, in Canada, 30% of the agricultural and food commodities consumed are imported, resulting in “food miles” of over 61 billion tonnes per kilometre, leading to annual emissions of 3.3 million metric tonnes of CO2. Of the various agriculture and food commodities, fruits and vegetables had the highest food miles related emissions (Kissinger 2012). Major changes in the delivery patterns of transportation systems, particularly to supermarkets and regional distribution centres by using larger HGVs (heavy goods vehicles), add more impetus to the food miles. Due to changes in consumer food habits and trends in transport logistics, retail operations have acted to increase the distance travelled. Use of cars for food shopping is another kind of personnel contribution to the food miles.  For instance, in the United Kingdom (UK), a customer drives a round-trip distance of more than 6.7 kilometres in order to purchase organic vegetables, and hence the carbon emissions are likely to be greater than the emissions from the system of cold storage, packing, transport to a regional hub and final transportation reaching the customer’s doorstop using large-scale vegetable boxes (Coley et al 2009).


Impact of Food Miles

Food miles have a major impact on the following dimensions:

Environment: The environmental impact of food transport is mainly by the emission of greenhouse gases from the fossil fuels used during transport of food that affects air quality and ultimately causes global warming. For example, in the UK, food transport was responsible for adding 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year (Smith et al 2005). In the United States, the food industry accounts for about 10% of the fossil fuels used and of them, only about 20% goes towards production and the rest are associated with processing, transport, home refrigeration and preparation (Hill 2008). However, the contribution of greenhouse gas emission from different sectors are that the energy sector accounted for 69% of the total emissions, the agriculture sector contributed 19% of the emissions, 9% of the emissions were from the industrial processes and product use, and only 3% of the emissions were attributable to waste (Sharma 2011).

Social: On the contrary, social impact of food transport occurs mainly by accident, the effect on human health, quality of life and loss of animal welfare.

Economic: The economic impact of food transport includes congestion and damage to the road infrastructure, increasing the cost of transport. Food miles escalation has a serious implication on the environment since the IPPC (International Plant Protection Convention) predicted that the average global temperature will rise from 10C by 2030 to nearly 30C by 2090 due to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions.


Figure 1: Ratio of total annual consumption to yearly CO2 emission

Source: Mishra and Mohanty (2016).

Research and information on food miles in India is very limited. In Cuttack, in Odisha (Figure 1), the amount of yearly carbon dioxide emissions was found to be more in the case of vegetables, milk and milk products (5.75%) as compared to the grains (6.95%) because the former food items travelled a long distance and consumed more energy for transportation causing environmental damage by releasing more quantum of carbon dioxide (Mishra and Mohanty 2016).

Assessment and Recommendations

The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method has been widely used to analyse the consumption and environmental burdens associated with a particular food product (Hill 2008).  LCA measures the amount of energy input and output consumed in all stages of the life cycle including production, processing, packaging, transport and distribution of produce until it reaches the consumer.

The environmental impact is not only caused from the food transport. But it also takes place from emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with the production of major food commodities. For example, in India, GHG emissions based on farm management for major crops (including cereals like wheat and rice, pulses, potatoes, fruits and vegetables) and livestock-based products (milk, eggs, chicken and mutton meat) were quantified and compared.

Livestock and rice production were found to be the main sources of GHG emissions in Indian agriculture with a country average of 5.65 kg CO2eq kg-1 rice, 45.54 kg CO2eq kg-1 mutton meat and 2.4 kg CO2eq kg-1 milk. Production of cereals (except rice), fruits and vegetables in India emit comparatively less GHGs with <1 kg CO2eq kg -1 produced. These show that a shift towards dietary patterns with greater consumption of animal source foods could greatly increase GHG emissions from Indian agriculture.

In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a range of compatible mitigation options should be implemented with increased future food production and consumption demands (Vetter et al 2017). Adopting LCA approach to food production and consumption would be a productive method for increasing the sustainability of the food system.

Implications to reduce the food miles lie on both producer’s side as well as consumer’s side.

For producers, food miles can be reduced by selling the produce to a local and regional market through direct marketing or by farmers' markets that helps farmers to directly compete with the wholesale market channels and big retail supermarket systems. The method can create a local food network and reduce the distance that food has to travel from a long distance. Direct marketing networks include farmers' markets, wholesale food terminals and community supported agriculture (CSA). Selling produce at farmers' markets is one of the alternate marketing strategies available for producers. By removing the middlemen from the distribution chain, farmers are able to reap a greater profit. Further, farmers' markets also benefit from community interaction leading to economic development.

Community supported agriculture offers another option for marketing food items to local or regional clientele and it has grown substantially over the past decade, indicating both the potential of success for the farmer and growing consumer demand for fresh and local food. Farm-to-institution programmes encourage the selling of food items directly to schools, hospitals, prisons and other institutions and have been recognised as a popular option in the recent past. Selling food to institutions creates a reliable market for the farmer and provides great health and economic benefits to the consumers.

For consumers, convenience and cost are the driving factors behind the purchase of food items. The choice a consumer makes can have a great deal of influence on the direction the food system is headed. By reducing the food miles, consumers can enjoy fresher and healthier food, support the local farmers and keep their money in the community, by purchasing the food in the local and regional market. They will know where the food comes from and how much distance the food has travelled in order to reach the consumption point. For example, in the UK, a survey was conducted in four supermarkets which indicated that only 5.6% of 251 consumers preferred country-of-origin food items. Around 4% of surveyed consumers chose UK’s products because this group of consumers believe that such produce was less harmful for the environment. In contrast, it was found that 21.5% of the consumers preferred products from other countries like New Zealand indicating the growing ‘‘food miles’’ or ‘‘the long distance it travels’’ (Kemp et al 2010).

Other measures to reduce food miles are: sourcing food more locally where it is appropriate, for example, it is carried out by building consumer awareness, public procurement, and support for local food initiatives; reducing the food purchase by car for example by home delivery, support for local and in-town shops; reducing the transport impacts for example by using cleaner vehicles, improved logistics; and improving the wider sustainability of the food system for example by fair trading, improving energy use efficiency in the local food network. The concepts of “local food” and “food miles” have become more powerful polemical tools in policy discourses built around sustainable agriculture and alternative food systems (Coley et al 2009).

From a governance point of view, formulation of fair trade policies is imperative to curtail the food miles through reduction of imports/exports because it consumes more energy for transportation and causes emission of greenhouse gases to the environment. The government of India imposed 10% import duty on wheat in 2017, which aimed at protecting the interest of local farmers and producers by clearing the domestic available stock through open market sales, by which the amount of food miles has been reduced directly or indirectly against importing the wheat from different global destinations.

Making Food Sustainable

Food miles measure the sustainability in the both food production and consumption. The sustainability assessment can enrich policymaking and support policy measures to improve sustainability in the food chain. Over time, food miles have led to a general movement towards local production and local consumption of food in order to minimize food miles. Food miles are the newly emerging issue in the field of a food industry that is responsible for causing greenhouse gas emissions released through the transportation of food from a long distance. It consumes a considerable amount of energy and causes global warming.

In order to reduce food miles, encourage businesses and government bodies to adopt procurement policies favouring locally grown, organic, and sustainably harvested foods that are minimally processed. Purchase local, organic, seasonal produce directly from the farmers' market; buy food with little packaging because packaging consumes more energy; and, as a consumer, adopt the “Grow on Your Own” mentality to reduce fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming associated with the transportation of food. The aforesaid options help to lift local agricultural communities, strengthen the local economy, and protect the environment in the long run by eating fresh and locally available food items. 

Vanishree M ( is with the ICAR-National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal; and Sendhil R ( is with the ICAR-Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research, Karnal.
27 September 2018