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WHAT'S WRONG WITH SUPERMARKETS? : 6 - Apples from Africa, pears from Peru

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Apples from Africa, pears from Peru - Food miles and climate change

Despite 'locally-produced food' being the latest supermarket buzzwords, finding local food in supermarkets is unusual. Even if it is labeled 'local', it still likely to have traveled the length and breadth of the country before reaching the nearest supermarket to the place where it was produced. This is because supermarkets are designed with centralised distribution in mind and stores simply do not have the infrastructure to purchase and sell locally. Industrially produced food covers an excessive number of miles before it reaches the shelves.

A traditional Sunday lunch could easily have traveled 25,000 miles if a chicken from Thailand and fresh vegetables from Africa are included in a supermarket shopping basket. A recent report has highlighted the trend for supermarkets to source food from overseas that could well be grown in the UK. In Britain, the distance food is transported has increased 50 per cent between 1978 and 1999.
Chicken from Thailand 10,691 miles by ship
Runner Beans from Zambia 4912 miles by plane
Carrots from Spain 1000 miles by lorry
Mange tout from Zimbabwe 5130 miles by plane
Potatoes from Italy 1521 miles by lorry
Sprouts from Britain 125 miles by lorry

Transport of imported goods from port of entry to distribution centre: 625 miles.

Transport from distribution centres to supermarket: 360 miles.

Total: 26,234 miles

However, choosing seasonal products and purchasing them locally at farmers' markets, for instance, could reduce the total distance to 376 miles, 1/66th of the distance of the meal above.

Source: Eating Oil: Food in a changing climate (2001) published by Sustain and the Elm Farm Research Centre.

Supermarket cheap food policies disadvantage local producers because they cannot compete with produce from countries where land or labour costs less. Long distance transportation of food also produces vast amounts of pollution, excess packaging and use of chemical preservatives, uses up large amounts of non-renewable fossil fuels (aviation fuel and diesel) and thus contributes significantly (and needlessly) to climate change.[50] There are huge animal welfare and disease control implications from the live transportation of animals.

The Trans-European Network (TEN) is a massive road and rail infrastructure project subsidised by the EU that essentially facilitates the export of cheap food and manufactured items from Eastern Europe. The UK Government also encourages food miles. Artificially low fuel costs, especially tax-free aviation fuel, mean we are importing food we could easily grow ourselves. According to DEFRA figures, the UK is 62.5% self-sufficient in all food (down from 75% in 1991).[51] UK air freight (imports and exports) is growing by about 7% a year and is expected to increase at a rate of 7.5% a year to 2010.[52]

Long distance transportation of food leads to the crazy situation where in 1997, 126 million litres of liquid milk was imported into the UK at the same time as 270 million litres was exported out of the UK.[53]

Furthermore, the closure of small abattoirs as a result of the UK government's over-stringent interpretation of international health and safety regulations has encouraged long journeys for live animals. Whilst this has indeed improved conditions in abattoirs, it has made the cost for independent operators of replacing them locally, financially prohibitive. Journeys of 200-400 miles to slaughter are not unusual for animals today; the average journey from farm to abattoir has been estimated at 100 miles.[54] Supermarkets regularly make a premium selling 'Scotch beef' and 'Welsh lamb' despite the fact that they may have only been transported across the country and pastured in Scotland or Wales for just two weeks.[55]

This is the reason why, despite a recent Friends of the Earth survey revealling that 84% of consumers want to buy UK fresh produce in season, the supermarkets are not delivering.[56] Another Friends of the Earth survey found that at the height of the UK apple season under half of the apples on offer in the big four supermarkets were home-grown.[57]

Whatever concerns supermarkets say they have over 'food miles' and climate change can surely be discounted when Sainsbury and now Tesco offer British Airway's Air Miles as part of their loyalty scheme.[58]

Its a wrap

One-third of the 25 million tonnes of waste produced in Britain in 1997 was packaging. The packaging industry uses 5% of the UK's total energy consumption, causes considerable pollution, and puts yet more strain on the country's land fill sites when packaging is disposed of; only 5%of packaging is currently recycled. The average household spends £470 per year on packaging - almost a sixth of food expenditure.[59] Disposable packaging is subsidised: the collection, landfill and pollution costs are borne by the taxpayer. Supermarkets have persistently lobbied against returnable packaging as too labour intensive, refusing to stock it.[60]

All food sold in supermarkets is transported, by suppliers or supermarket trucks, to regional distribution centres (RDCs) around the country before being distributed back to supermarkets. Sainsbury, for example, has only 12 depots for chilled goods. Supermarkets work on the principle of 'Just In Time' delivery with products rushed to superstores as and when they are needed.

As storage is expensive, the supermarkets persuade farms and manufacturers to store produce on their behalf leading to refrigerated juggernauts visiting farms daily collecting just a few pallets of produce. These trucks thus become 'warehouses on wheels'. Supermarkets claim that a more centralised system means more efficient transportation, with fewer lorries delivering to supermarkets. However, this does not acknowledge that lorries carrying produce from farms must travel further to the RDCs. Supermarkets are also increasingly telling farmers to deliver the goods themselves to the RDCs. Passing yet another cost onto the suppliers. According to the 'Eating Oil' report, the food system accounts for up to 40% of all UK road freight.

Like many retailers and processors, all the major corporate agri-businesses and supermarkets continue to use refrigeration machinery and coolant materials, which use massive volumes of CFC and now HFC chemicals. These are both potent ozone depletors. Refrigeration systems also use vast amounts of electricity and therefore contribute to the burning of fossil fuels and global warming.

As well as being environmentally unsustainable, our reliance on fossil fuels make the UK vulnerable to food and fuel crises.


[50] For every litre of aviation fuel burnt, 2.5 kg of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Burning a litre of diesel fuel releases 2.7 kg of CO2.

[51] www.defra.gov.uk/esg/Excel/selfsuff.xls

[52] Stopping the Great Food Swap - Caroline Lucas 2001. See Further Reading.

[53] ibid.

[54] 'From Farm to Plate'. The Guardian 28th February 2001.

[55] 'Sins of the Superstores Visited on Us' George Monbiot. The Guardian 1st March 2001.

[56] NOP Omnibus carried out the poll between the 8th and 10th November, see Friends of the Earth press release 18/11/02 'New poll shows that public back farmers vs farmers'.

[57] Friends of the Earth media breifing 'British Apples for Sale'. Nov 2002.

[58] 'Sainsbury loses out to Tesco in Air Miles loyalty card deal' 11/1/ 02 just-food.com

[59] 'From Farm to Plate'

[60] 'From Market to Hypermarket' in The Ecologist Vol.24 No.4. July/August 1994.