Food Air Miles – Higher Than We Think

Awareness of climate change is increasing, and many people are taking it personally, looking for ways to reduce their individual carbon emissions. The food choices we make are becoming an increasingly popular way to reduce carbon emissions. But food air miles are racking up as the vegan and health markets are bringing in a wide range of exotic fruits and vegetables to areas of the world, and especially the UK, where demand for unseasonal and indigenous products is rocketing. These foods are meant to have a significantly positive impact on our bodies, but at what environmental cost?

Veganism is often looked upon as a healthy alternative diet. Many consumers also turn to the lifestyle as a means to contribute to reducing the environmental impact that the meat and dairy industries create. While plant-based diets can have a big impact on reducing carbon emissions, it doesn’t always help.

Soy and almonds are heavily relied upon by the vegan community. Soy is used in meat alternatives such as Quorn and almond ‘milk’ is a popular non-dairy alternative. But criticism has been given to both products’ production methods.

Soya beans are mainly grown in South America, predominantly Brazil. Transportation has been highlighted as a concern, especially as meat and dairy products are being sourced locally nowadays. However, the major concern is not the miles of travelling between growing, processing and consuming, although it is a contributing concern to the criticised sustainability of soy as an alternative, but the real issue: deforestation. Deforestation is hitting Brazil at an alarming rate with rainforests being cleared to keep up with the soya demand. It’s important to note that only 6% of the world’s soya crops are used to make soy foods for humans to eat and 70-75% is actually used to feed livestock.

Almonds are processed to produce almond milk, a very popular non-dairy replacement for milk. With an obvious difference in distance between local milk production and almond milk production, it’s no wonder that it’s being criticised for being misleading about its environmental impacts. However, when taking into account a product’s whole environmental impact, research has shown that almond milk produces fewer greenhouse emissions than dairy, rice, soy and oat milk, and required at least 10 times less land to produce than dairy milk.

In recent years, avocados have become increasingly popular thanks to their perceived health benefits – a source of healthy fats. In 2019, this craze is still going strong with avocados a regular on many shopping lists.  However, studies have shown that a small pack of two avocados has an emission footprint of 846.36g CO2, which is almost double that of a kilo of bananas. This is not just down to transporting them from countries such as Chile, Peru or South Africa, but also due to complexities involving growing and ripening the fruit.

Consuming local food can only be a good thing, right? Well, there are many different factors that could show sourcing these ingredients from all over the world is less environmentally costly than first thought.

Avoiding food produced in developing countries a long way away could have a catastrophic effect on their local economy. Many people rely on farming and exporting goods. If this trade was taken away from them, a vital source of income would be diminished.

A DEFRA study found that it was less environmentally friendly to grow tomatoes in the UK then to import them from Spain. It concluded that heating our greenhouses used more energy than transport. There are also other examples that show when other things such as energy usage, fertilisers, feed, deforestation and pesticides are all added up, local produce isn’t always the best solution.

With this in mind, it’s clear that transporting goods does have effect the environment, but there are other factors that have a more significant impact. It’s clear that there aren’t many fully sustainable solutions to meet the ever-growing demand for exotic. While air miles are outputting carbon emissions, at the moment, sourcing exotic foods from their native locations appears to be the most sustainable way to receive them. But, until a solution is found, the most sustainable diet would to eat locally grown, and, very importantly, seasonal produce.

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