Over-processed, over-preserved and over-packaged foods mean that consumers are buying foods of low nutritional value. Diet related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and appendicitis increase as societies move towards the Western diet, low in fruit and vegetables, and high in refined starches, fats and sugars. Pesticide residues pose additional health risks, although it is the farmworkers who are most likely to suffer immediate health effects rather than the final consumers.
When consumers buy food from supermarkets, almost all the money is lost to the local economy. It may be lost to the national economy if the food is imported, or the product of food companies based abroad. Only a small amount of the money spent will stay in the area, in the form of wages to local people working in the retail outlet. However, every £10 spent on local food through small initiatives is worth £25 to the local food economy, because of the ‘multiplier’ effect, where money is spent on other local goods and services.
FORCES BEHIND THE FOOD MILES
Cheap fuel and transport
The forces behind food miles are complex. A key area is the low costs of transport and fuel which do not reflect the full environmental and social costs of their use. Transport is responsible for not only local and global air pollution, but for contributing to health problems, climate change and destruction of the ozone layer. It also creates noise pollution, vibration, fumes and dirt, accidents, wear and tear on transport infrastructure and the destruction of wildlife habitats. These costs are borne by society and the environment.
The ‘middlemen’ in the food chain, such as freight operators, processors, packaging companies and retailers, benefit most from increasing food trade and transport. On a national level, the major retailers in the UK control over 80 per cent of food sold in the UK. Supermarkets have shelf space to fill all year round and import foods to fill seasonal gaps, even when those foods are in season in this country. The centralised distribution systems and ‘justin-time’ ordering systems of supermarkets result in increased freight transport, as journeys are made when goods are ordered, not when lorries are full. This results in more journeys being made than necessary to transport a given amount of goods.
Internationally, transnational corporations (TNCs) exploit land, labour and resources in developing countries for the production of cheap export crops. Considerable mark-ups are added to these products before being sold to rich consumers in the north, the profits being reaped by the TNCs. Increasingly, added value food and drink products, such as soft drinks, are sold back to consumers in developing countries.
In order to earn export earnings, IMF and World Bank policies have encouraged, through structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), more and more farmers in developing countries to move away from the production of food for local consumption to producing similar ‘cash crops’ such as coffee, tea, and horticultural products for export. The result has been over-supply of these products, causing the value of food commodities to plummet, bankrupting many producers. There is still intense pressure to further liberalise trade in foodstuffs. In World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations, the Cairns Group is seeking to remove barriers to international trade in food and agricultural subsidies.