Why worrying about food miles is missing the point

Jay Rayner in the food stocks

In November 2009, I lost my temper in front of a bank of television cameras in a way I have never done before or since. I was in Los Angeles working as a judge on the second season of the American TV series, Top Chef Masters. For the final, the three remaining competitors had been asked to cook a series of dishes that told their story: their first food experiences, where they are now, where they are going and the like. For the dish that defined where he was going, the famed Las Vegas-based chef Rick Moonen had cooked a venison dish, using meat imported from New Zealand.

This was baffling. Throughout the competition Moonen had described himself as "the fish guy". He was also "the sustainability guy". He cared about the planet, he told us day after day in the competition. I can't pretend. I had not warmed to the man. The sustainability guy? His flagship restaurant was in Las Vegas, one of the least sustainable cities on the face of the planet. I had no doubt he sourced his ingredients sustainably, but just being in Las Vegas, a city that gulped water and petrochemicals like they were going out of fashion (they are), was in itself an unsustainable act. And now here was the fish guy, the sustainability guy, announcing that he had used meat imported from halfway across the world. When he was in front of us I asked him some pointed questions. Once the competitors were gone, and we were deliberating, I let rip.

I shouted. I raged. Veins bulged.


The producers saved me from myself. They included none of my rant in the final edit. I made up for it once that episode had aired, by writing a piece for this newspaper explaining my fury. Moonen responded online by calling me out; the venison had arrived in LA by sea, he said. It was fully sustainable. His supporters in Vegas alleged I had robbed their man of the prize. I can say firmly that the Kiwi venison was not why Moonen lost. The cooking by Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopian-born chef adopted and raised by a Swedish couple before making his name in the US, was so much better. Samuelsson deserved to win. But Moonen and his well-travelled bambi did himself no favours.

Cut to three years later and I am reading an academic paper with a very snappy title: Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand's Agriculture Industry by Caroline Saunders, Andrew Barber and Greg Taylor. I'm citing the full title so you can look it up, and you may want to. It's not a breezy read, but it is an important one. At the very least it requires me to apologise to Rick Moonen. Having read it I can now say that while it's in no way certain it is possible venison raised in New Zealand and shipped to California could well be more sustainable than the alternatives in California. At least he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Sorry Mr Moonen. I'm still not a fan and it really doesn't change the result of the contest. There were three other judges. But on this point it looks like he may have been right and I may have been wrong.

Because, according to this exceptionally detailed study from 2006, lamb, apples and dairy produced in New Zealand and shipped to Britain have a smaller carbon footprint than the equivalent products produced in Britain. To be exact, the UK uses twice as much carbon per tonne of milk solids produced as New Zealand, and four times the amount as New Zealand for lamb. I was so baffled by the report I wanted to know whether I had read it correctly. I emailed Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at Leeds University who is also the "UK Champion for Global Food Security", charged with co-ordinating work on the subject between research councils and government departments. He truly understands both the global food challenges that we face and what sustainable intensification means. He had been an invaluable source of academic papers and scholarly advice for my investigation into the challenges of food security from the very start. I wanted to know whether the report was simply a function of the New Zealand agriculture sector attempting to protect its commercial interests by ferociously massaging some numbers.

He threw in some caveats but, he said: "The overall picture is probably true."

For me it was the final nail in the coffin of localism. Then again I'd been listening to the hammering for months.

In the late 90s, when the term "food miles" was first coined by Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, it was a vital and important part of the debate on how our food system worked. It was a simple and easily understandable notion: the further your food travelled from point of production to point of retail the worse for the environment it was, by dint of the amount of fuel that journey took. It was that simplicity which made it a rallying cry for food campaigners across the developed world. Here, finally, was a tangible way in which to describe what was wrong with our food system. It also gave environmentally minded consumers a simple way to judge whether they should buy a product. Had it come from as close by as possible? If yes, then into the basket it went.

The problem is it's far too simple. Looking only at transport costs for your food is not just to miss the bigger picture, it's to miss the picture entirely. The only way you can get some sense of the footprint of your food is by using what's called a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), which brings everything about the production of that item into play: the petrochemicals used in farming and in fertilisers, the energy to build tractors as well as to run them, to erect farm buildings and fences, and all of that has to be measured against yield. It's about emissions per tonne of apples or lamb. The New Zealand report used nearly 30 different measures in its LCA. And it's when you start drilling down on those that the point is quickly made.

Using a wide sample of apple farms both in the UK and New Zealand, the researchers found that the actual weight of nitrogen fertiliser used was roughly similar in both countries (80kg per hectare in NZ to 78kg in the UK). However, in New Zealand they were getting a yield of 50 tonnes per hectare, as against 14 tonnes in Britain. Where lamb was concerned yield was higher in the UK than New Zealand, but so was nitrogen fertiliser use by a factor of more than 13. New Zealand simply has a better landscape and climate for rearing lamb and apples. Of course, as Professor Benton pointed out to me, some of these figures may be out of date – but not by much. There are also endless arguments about what things ought to be measured and what ought not to be measured. But even if it is the most extreme example, it makes its point.

Jan Kees Vis, global director of sustainable sourcing development at Unilever in the Netherlands, has overseen research which puts the proportion of the global carbon footprint of your food as a result of its transportation at 2-3%. Not convinced? After all, Unilever would have rather more than a small vested interest in this. Fair enough. Look instead at the detailed and independent study by Christopher Weber and H Scott Matthews from Carnegie Mellon University from 2008. They put it at 4%. Or as Professor Benton put it to me, "If you want to wipe out all the food miles in what you eat, all you need do is swap one day's red-meat eating a week to white meat. Not even to a vegetarian diet. Just to white meat."

There's an awful lot of research to back this up, showing how just how much extra land you would need if food production moved from where it is now, to be conveniently close to you so you could feel good about your food miles. But even I would find that tedious.

So, instead, come with me briefly to the fens of Lincolnshire. Generally I hate flat places. They sap the will, drain away ambition. But I'll put up with it to make a killer point about comparative advantage in agriculture. If you look at a map of potato growing in Britain you'll quickly see that it's concentrated here on the flat expanses around King's Lynn and the Scottish borders. It's no accident, as potato farmer Bill Legge explains to me while he gives me a tour of his fields, hemmed in on each side by the grassy banks that keep the waters at bay. Legge has been farming potatoes around here all his life, on land which was under water until the 17th century. "It's peat soil here so we need to use less in the way of nitrogen fertilisers," he says. Not only that. This dark loose soil is good for the harvesting of potatoes. "Here, we get about 20 tonnes of potatoes an acre," Bill tells me.

So how about if potato production was moved closer to the capital? After all there are more people living in London than, say, King's Lynn. "Well it's a clay soil there and it's not as productive. Plus, it's bloody hard to harvest them from the solid clod."

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