Buy Local Food to Save the Planet

Food Policy study shows how Britain could achieve £4bn in environmental savings

London, 2 March 2005 - If people bought and consumed more local and more organic produce and if their journeys to and from food shops were made on a bus, by bike or on foot rather than in a car, there would be more than £4bn in environmental savings to the British economy. This is the principal claim of a groundbreaking new economic study of the environmental impact of our weekly shop conducted jointly by the University of Essex and City University. The study will be published in the next edition of Elsevier’s journal Food Policy and will the findings will be presented for the first time in a public forum by the authors at a Science Media Centre briefing to be held at the Royal Institution, UK, at 10:30 on 2nd March 2005.

Principal authors Professor Jules Pretty (Essex) and Professor Tim Lang (City) found that Britons typically spend £24.79 on food each week, £7.53 of which is spent on eating out. Their analysis found that the environmental impact of this typical weekly shop was an additional 81p per person through farms not using organic farming methods, 76p person through transportation from farms to retail outlets, and 41p person through consumers traveling to and from the shops. They conclude that these environmental costs - combined with government subsidies to farmers of 93p per shopper per week - undervalue the true cost of the weekly shop by nearly 12%.

Looking for strategies to minimise the environmental impact of food production and transportation, Pretty, Lang and colleagues make the following stark claims, based on the most authoritative econometric assessment yet conducted in this crucial policy area:

  • if all farms in the UK were to turn organic, then environmental costs would fall from £1.5bn to less than £400m, saving the country £1.1bn annually;
  • if all food were sourced from within 20km of where it was consumed, environmental and congestion costs would fall from more than £2.3bn to under £230m, a further saving of £2.1bn; and,
  • if shopping by car were to be replaced by travel by bus, bicycle or walking, environmental and congestion costs would fall by a further £1.1bn, from £1.3bn to just over £100m.

Lead researcher, Professor Jules Pretty, said: “The most political act we do on a daily basis is to eat, as our actions affect farms, landscapes and food businesses. These choices matter enormously, as different productions and transport systems have different effects on the environment. Food miles are much more significant than we previously thought, and much now needs to be done to encourage local production and consumption of food.”

Co-researcher, Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, added: “How far food travels is becoming more important for policy-makers and consumers alike.

They are rightly becoming more conscious of food and health, but the environmental costs of food choice also matter. For example, fruits and vegetables traveling long-distance or short-distance may deliver similar nutrition or look the same, but environmentally they are poles apart.”

Contrary to the frequent claims of anti-globalisation campaigners, the environmental impact of global “food miles” was found to be trivial, since most people’s weekly shop is made up of food grown somewhere in the UK and Europe but extensively transported across it. However, if food production were to cease on UK farms and all food were to be transported by air from global sources, the authors show that the environmental costs would rise by a staggering £19.7bn each year.

This research will be published shortly in Elsevier’s journal Food Policy, volume 30, number 1. The paper is titled "Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket". Food Policy is the leading international journal publishing original research and critical reviews on issues in the formulation, implementation and analysis of policies for the food sector in developing, transition and advanced economies.

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Notes to Editors

Ten Things You Should Know About The True Costs Of Food Transportation And The Environment

1. The average person consumes 11.68 kg of food per week (10.02 at home). The typical weekly shopping basket costs £17.26.

2. Eating out costs £7.53 per week, some 30% of total food expenditure.

3. Each person makes 221 shopping trips per year, with an average length of 6.4 km (up from 4 km in 1985).

4. Agri-food products now account for 28% of all freight transport in the UK (up from 25% in the 1980s).

5. The amount of freight carried in the UK is some 1580 million tonnes (up by 23% in 20 years), which is carried some 149 billion t-km (up by 65% over 20 years). So freight, including food, is traveling further on UK roads.

6. The external costs arising from the raising and cultivating of 12 commodities were calculated. On a per kg basis, livestock impose the most environmental costs:

a. Beef/veal 64.8 p per kg

b. Mutton/lamb 43.6 p per kg

c. Pork 12.8 p per kg

d. Poultry 5.7 p per kg

7. Oil seed rape imposes the highest arable costs at 3.45 p per kg; vegetables (0.61 p per kg) and fruit (1.44 p per kg) impose low costs.

8. The 1.72 p per kg costs for cereals represents 18% of the value of the price of wheat in 2004.

9. Some food miles arise from an extraordinary food swap between the UK and the continent. Each year, some 12.2 million tonnes of food are imported, and 7.4 million tonnes exported. Some produce is simply swapped.

10. Each year …

a. 0.48 million tonnes of pork is imported, and 0.21 million tonnes is exported;

b. 0.41 million tonnes of milk is exported, and 0.43 million tonnes is exported;

c. some 130,000 sheep are exported and 120,000 are imported.

These findings are taken from Pretty, Lang et al. (2005). Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket. Food Policy, 30 (1), in press.

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