Air freight of fresh foods has doubled in the past twenty years, a trend which is set to continue. Air transport is particularly damaging to the environment as it results in 37 times more carbon dioxide emissions than sea freight, and because pollutants are emitted at high altitudes where more damage is done in terms of ozone depletion and global warming.
Driven to shop
Shopper miles are also an issue as more people are driving to out – and edge-of-town supermarkets to do their food buying. One shopping trip by car can use more fuel than freight transport up to the point of sale, even if the produce is imported (athough not by plane).
The 3 ‘P’s: processing, packaging, pesticides
Food is perishable and needs to be preserved for long distance transport, to prevent spoilage and contamination. Common methods of preserving food include processing, packaging and pesticide spraying.
The manufacture of processed foods from raw ingredients is an energy intensive procedure using up to ten times the energy needed to grow the crop in the first place. Processed foods are likely to have incurred greater food miles than fresh produce because ingredients and packaging materials will be sourced from other parts of the country and abroad. Food manufacturers are increasingly centralising production, some having just one factory to serve the whole EU, in order to cut costs.
A study by the Wuppertal Institute found that to bring one truckload of 150 g strawberry yoghurts to south Germany, strawberries came from Poland, yoghurt from north Germany, corn and wheatflour from the Netherlands, jam from west Germany and sugar beet from the east of the country, while the aluminium cover for the strawberry jar came from
Figure 5.2 Comparison of food imports into the UK between І96І and 1998.
UK imports of foodstuffs, 1961-1998 (DETR, 1999)
300 km away. Only the milk and glass jar were produced locally.
The basic components of many processed foods, such as cakes or biscuits, are the same, so the apparent choice and variety in supermarkets is exaggerated. Consumers are persuaded to pay more via ‘added value’ for cheap ingredients which are made to seem appealing through the use of additives, glamorous packaging and aggressive marketing.
As well as the increasing need to apply agrochemicals when crops are grown in industrial scale
monocultures, pesticides are applied to fresh produce to preserve it during long distance transit. For example, 85 per cent of Cox apples in the UK are treated with post-harvest chemical dip or drench prior to storage. Unlike pesticides applied in the field, these chemicals are designed to stay on the produce. The Department of Health recommends peeling orchard fruit to avoid eating pesticide residues.
Packaging enables foods to withstand long periods in transit and glamorises the contents of processed food and drink products. Food distribution requires
at least four types of packaging, including primary packaging on the food product, secondary packaging, such as cases or boxes, transit packaging such as crates, and carrier bags or boxes to carry foodstuffs from shops to the home.
1.5 billion dustbins of packaging waste are produced in the UK each year, most of this ending up in landfill sites. Up to a third of this waste is used to protect food and drink products. Long distances between producers and consumers make reducing and reusing packaging much more difficult, whereas local food systems can reduce the need for packaging and makes the reuse of containers much more viable. Returnable bottles, best suited for local distribution systems, typically use one quarter of the energy of any single trip package.