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From the file

Net Zero 2030: a Tortoise moonshot | The UK has set itself a target that the entire world needs to get to: net zero carbon emissions. But the 2050 target date isn’t nearly soon enough. We need to get there faster and we need to keep on removing carbon from the atmosphere to have a hope of limiting warming to 2 degrees C. But how?

The Myth of Food Miles

The Myth of Food Miles


Buy local? It sounds good, but shrinking the huge carbon footprint of the global food and agriculture business isn’t that simple. Jelena Sofronijevic went in search of solutions that might actually work.


Hello, I’m Giles Whittell, an editor at Tortoise.  The food and agriculture business accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, so when Tortoise set out to work out what it would take to get to net zero by 2030 it was vital that someone looked closely at food, at this vast network of farms and supply chains to assess whether they could drastically cut their carbon footprint, and if so, how.  And Jelena Sofronijevic has done just that; in fact, it was her idea, and it launched her an on exhaustive and probably exhausting investigation of a world that links us all, but a world where markets often don’t work and received wisdom is often wrong, and emissions reductions that could be happening by and large aren’t.  So, Jelena, thanks very much for doing this and welcome.

JS: Hello Giles, thank you for indulging my interest in the food industry and sustainability.

GW: One of the most widely accepted tasks on our collective climate change to do list is to cut food miles and eat local.  So, my first question is, is that right, should we?

JS: Well Giles, you’re correct in that as consumers we’re certainly sold that locally sourced food is more sustainable; there are the environmental benefits that we would be preserving farmland, improving air quality, promoting local biodiversity, but generally you’re correct, this idea that fewer miles from soil to stomach, as the Food Foundation puts it, must necessarily mean fewer transport and storage emissions, and also shorter and more transparent supply chains.  And then we’ve also got the socioeconomic benefits of supporting British employment and fresh food production.  And I put stress on those words because actually words like local, British and fresh – I use used big inverted commas here because those words and who benefits from them really need unpacking, and I think someone that I spoke to who explains this very well is Matthew Rymer who is the founder and CEO of Happily which is a company that advocates for transparency across the complex global food supply chain.

Matthew Rymer: Before you even discuss the merits or otherwise of buying local food one needs to find local and it’s one of the most abused words in terms of food descriptions because what exactly is local.  I know a butcher’s not far from here – support your local butcher, buy your local meat.  All the meat in that butcher’s is foreign; that’s not local, but it’s being described as local.  The consumer doesn’t know that and is surmising that they’re supporting local farmers, but they’re not.  Perhaps we should, if anything, ban the word local; it’s a word that currently you can hide behind, you can keep peddling the British is best, but in certain cases it might  not be.  If it is, then it’s going to be specific, and specific to a particular crop, grown in a particular way, on a particular farm perhaps.  I know of a supply chain for a leading very upmarket supermarket chain that will start with calves in Somerset, they will be moved to calf rearer farm that could be up in Derbyshire, then they’ll be shifted to a grain fattening farm that could be in Pembrokeshire, then double decker lorries taking them to slaughter in North Yorkshire at Dovecote Park, then to travel round the country to be sold as Aberdeen Angus beef.  And the miles on that that are so concealed behind the brand and the premium, but a butcher that could be sourcing local carcasses and having them slaughtered locally and butchered locally will have to sell that meat at such a premium that most consumers simply can’t afford it, unless they look at meat consumption in a very different way, and I’ve always said with meat is less is more, but it’s complicated.

JS: So I think Matthew is really interesting on this point because he says that even the supposedly local supply chains are not necessarily shorter or more transparent than global ones and in fact 82 per cent of British food miles are generated domestically, almost half by cars driving between shops and homes, which means that if you’re driving more than ten kilometres your supermarket commute actually releases more emissions than air freighting your shelf ready green beans in from Kenya.

GW: Oh, my goodness!

JS: So, over-simplifying the focus to food miles ignores those emissions produced across the chain and it also promotes a kind of environmental absolutism that ignores these trade-offs.  Factors like seasonality and transport and production efficiency are often a lot more decisive than distance, so for instance cold storage which allows the consumption of out of season produce perhaps is particularly damaging, which means that shipping South American apples to the UK would halve the greenhouse gas emissions that we use to refrigerate British apples for ten months.  And certain foods are also produced more efficiently at source, so for instance Spanish tomato production is three times less greenhouse gas intensive than its UK equivalent because the tomatoes in Spain don’t need to be grown in energy intensive greenhouses.  So, for instance, frozen, canned and packaged foods all require more processing, but they can reduce waste and transport demands and enable consumers to eat locally grown foods out of season.  And I wonder whether some of these statistics would be the same if the energy source for storage was renewable or if the packaging materials were recycled, or if we had decarbonised elements of transport.  So, with respect to those Spanish tomatoes it’s also worth remembering that the plastic greenhouses that cover them stretch so wide that you can actually see them from space.  But certainly, focusing on transport in the food value supply chain is to focus on pretty much the wrong thing.  Christophe Bellman is the Associate Fellow at Chatham House and he’s co-author of a report on the role of international trade in reducing food emissions and he points out that it’s production rather than transport that we need to be focusing on.

Christophe Bellman: Most of the emissions, roughly about 83 per cent of the emissions occur at the production stage.  Livestock production we know accounts for about half of the greenhouse gas emissions from the global agriculture sector; it also uses quite a lot of land and a lot of resources.  It’s also very much associated with deforestation in some parts of the world – it’s estimated that up to 27 per cent of global deforestation is still the result of permanent land use change for commodity production.

GW: So, it turns out Jelena that just paying attention to food miles isn’t going to be enough and may even be the wrong thing, so what are we to do?

JS: Well, it’s important that we rethink our approach to food entirely and take a life cycle approach which acknowledges and balances emissions and connects these stakeholders across the global food supply chain, so it’s important that we rethink our economic understanding of food value and recognise these interconnected negative human and environmental costs of unhealthy food.  At this point I want to introduce Moreno Di Marco, he’s an ecologist at the Sapienza University of Rome and he says that Covid-19 could be the wakeup call we need to the effects of our excessive consumption.

Moreno Di Marco: I think before the pandemic what we considered to be normality was not normality, using resources at a pace which was too high, it was unsustainable and I don’t think that we can keep doing that.  As we see some countries developing their economy and they may want to have the same use of resources that we have here in Europe and so then they want to consume as much meat as we do.  It is time for us to redeem our lifestyles and think that our choices will have an effect on our own health, even if we don’t care too much about the planet and about biodiversity unfortunately our choices will modify the environment in a way that might have negative effects for our own health.

JS: I think the notion here of interconnected human and planetary health is really important because it also shows how these goals can only be achieved simultaneously.  So, for instance, adopting the UK government’s Eat Well guide or the EAT-Lancet Commission’s Planetary Health Diet would not only reduce food related emissions by as much as 35 per cent, but it would also drastically cut food associated illnesses which are the biggest driver of NHS spending.

GW: Thirty-five per cent reduction in carbon emissions just from adopting this Planetary Health Diet, but wait a minute, surely that’s only basically if we all go vegan right?

JS: Well, making healthy and sustainable dietary choices is the most powerful individual action we can do against climate change, but cutting unsustainable demand, eating more legumes and pulses and less animal based and processed foods, cutting food waste, single use plastics, convenience foods; these are all things that will help and demand is really important here, so the think tank RethinkX suggests that US food emissions could reduce by as much as 65 percent by 2035 if we have a big drop in demand and production and animal based products which it forecasts.  But consuming less actually means being more demanding of knowledge particularly in the supply chain, but for transparency, certification and quality, especially on production intensive goods like meat and dairy.  Jackie Gibson is Happily’s Sustainability Advisor and she points out here how consumer demand will define standards throughout the chain.

Jackie Gibson: Demand will dictate how you’ll go, how seasonal, how sustainable he wants his food to be and he will ensure that the suppliers there are those restaurants, the chefs that want to buy into that, they are the ones dictating those standards.

So clearly there’s a knowledge deficit that runs throughout the global food supply chain.  Matt Smith is a New Zealand farmer but he’s been rearing sheep and venison in Cornwall for the last six years.  He says that we need to shorten the gap between producers and consumers, and that that will help to improve knowledge for all.

Matt Smith: Obviously, this coronavirus here has actually brought farming into a better light.  The decline in respect towards agriculture, it was very alarming, as we’ve seen around the world the detachment and understanding of where food comes from, we were no longer essential workers.  Two weeks before the outbreak we had politicians, and he should be made accountable for his statement, that we can fly everything in.  Now at that point he was probably absolutely correct, but we’re only somewhere between 60 per cent and 70 per cent self-sufficient on food production in this country; we need support in agriculture, but not necessarily financially.  We need to shorten the gap between them and us which is the public and the farmer, we need to create a little bit better understanding between what we’re trying to do and what they expect from us.  I think we need someone in government that actually understands it and can tell a good story on behalf of the farmers.  We also need parliament as a whole to understand that we do need to become more efficient.

I was really interested to speak to Matt because he’s from New Zealand and currently importing lamb from New Zealand producing fewer emissions than from buying so called British, partially due to the region’s more efficient livestock farming methods.  But Matt points out that British production could be better if producers had access to and implemented more knowledge.

MS: I think certain foods definitely you can’t challenge a country’s natural environment to grow certain food products more efficiently than we can here in the UK, basically just because of climate.  But when it comes to agriculture, I travelled around the world for 14 years in some pretty adverse conditions – wow, if we can’t do it in the UK better then you probably couldn’t do it anywhere in the world; we have so much grass, our biggest problem is harvesting it and feeding it efficiently.  It’s not that we can’t be the best in terms of a carbon footprint on a livestock level, we’re just are a little bit ignorant towards how we need to change.  You know I was always brought up in breaking things down, when you buy a farm in New Zealand you buy it on stock units, you don’t buy it on a per acre basis classed on where it is, you buy it on what it actually financially is currently turning over and has done for the last two years, so you can make a business minded decision as to how you invest into that farm.  And here I think farmers forget to look at the margin, there’s a lot of farmers that look at gross turnover which is also important, but bigger gross doesn’t always increase the margin.  People go to a market with a penful of ten lambs at £110 and they’ll skrike about it, whereas a lot of the good efficient farmers go to the farmers with 110 lambs and get £90 – probably not too dissimilar on the acreage, so who is better off?  Here we’ve got the same size farm, or bigger now than the father-in-law had, running more than three times the stocking rate, but yet we’ve built ponds, we’ve built hedges, we’ve got places for natural wildlife to live in, but yet our profit margins are far greater because our costs haven’t really changed.

JS: Matt makes two points here that are really interesting.  Firstly, he says that economic and environmental motivations need not necessarily conflict, and that improving productive efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean starting on intensive animal farming or depending on genetically modified or chemical agriculture.  Traditional and small-scale production methods like rotating crops or optimising water and fertiliser use, managing waste or planting nitrate fixing species; all of these things can improve yield and biodiversity, and remarkably Matt claims that this responsible approach makes his livestock farm a carbon sink.

MS: Certain grasses being grazed and managed could sequence carbon because of the way that their root structure was and the way they functioned, and livestock naturally chose to eat them.  By managing certain pasture species and managing them in a rotational grazing system we’re actually sequencing carbon.  Livestock are taking in the carbon so we’re running below zero on our system.  A lot of these sorts of things have been swept under the rug because they’re not the shock story that people want to hear, and there’s a lot of good farmers out there that are actually using these practices that just keep their mouths shut, nobody really wants to stick their neck out for it to get chopped off, and unfortunately in this country I’ve stuck my neck out a fair few times and by God, I’m getting sick of pulling the damn thing in before people try and take a swing at it.

GW: Okay, so he says that he has been able to turn his farm into a carbon sink, does that mean that we need to steer clear of large-scale agribusiness that doesn’t do that in favour of smaller boutique farms that do?

JS: No, and again to quote Matthew Rymer, it’s complicated.  Whether small scale farming or large-scale factory production all businesses can profit from investing in more economically and environmentally efficient production.  So back to RethinkX, they suggest that technological developments in production could actually reduce food prices by up to 80 per cent and create up to one million new jobs in US precision fermentation.  Similarly, by working with stakeholders across the supply chain the London Food Board’s new ambitious and interdisciplinary food strategy aims to generate an extra two to four billion GDP per year by 2036.  So, what’s important here is businesses, whether small or large, take the initiative to trade up rather than focusing on these trade-offs.

GW: Okay, so you’re saying that in principle they could improve their bottom line and their carbon footprint at the same time – I think that’s what you mean by trading up as opposed to trading off, so why don’t they, is one of the problems for small scale producers that they just don’t have the capital to make the investments required?

JS: Definitely.  Primary producers bear a disproportionate burden in the global food system, they receive very little support for their sustainable practices and scarcely receive more than five per cent to six per cent of the final price of their goods, and under the UK version of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, only farms larger than five hectares qualified for payments.  That means almost 50 per cent of funds went to the top ten per cent of farms and only two per cent to the bottom 20 per cent of them.  Anna Taylor is Executive Director of the Food Foundation and she’s also Chief Independent Advisor on the UK government’s upcoming National Food Strategy for England, and she talks here about the Agriculture Bill which is the UK’s post-Brexit replacement for the CAP.  For the first time provisions have been included to require ministers to consider the need to produce food in an environmentally sustainable way in order to fit into wider decarbonisation efforts.

Anna Taylor: Also being debated in parliament at the moment is the Agriculture Bill and that bill is really all around trying to align our farming system with environmental goals so that we’re not paying them based on the amount of land that they have, but based on the environmental goods that they will deliver.  We would like to see that bill also reward farmers who are investing in or scaling up or being particularly innovative in creating healthier products, so particularly we’d like to see investment in horticulture in Britain because we think there’s huge opportunity to grow a little bit more of our fruit and veg here in the UK, benefiting both citizens and farmers, but as yet it’s not clear whether the bill will recognise public health as a public good in that sense.  Within the Common Agricultural Policy you were actually allowed to provide subsidy support for very small producers, those with under five hectares of land, but in the UK we didn’t choose to take up that provision, so that could be reversed, helping those very small producers with capital investment that they need to get to the next scale where they can actually start to build in some greater efficiency to their business models.

JS: What Anna points out that’s really important here is how our current political environment incentivises unsustainable practices.  According to the Food Sustainability Index the UK ranks 55 out of 67 for sustainable agricultural policies; our poor scores for the productivity and opportunities for investment were beaten only by our zeroes in agricultural subsidies and water management.  So, government must reform the subsidy system in order to incentivise and invest in innovation, and reward producers at all levels for how and not how much they produce.  Christophe Bellman again explains why we need to reform these subsidies.

CB: These are maybe the two main issues; on the one hand remove the perverse incentives that slow down the transition to a low carbon economy, and second try to redesign those incentives in a way that encourage more sustainable food production.  It doesn’t send any incentives to farm producers, but at least it makes sure that domestically you have a more sustainable production which is incentivised.

GW: So, Jelena, is that enough, remove perverse incentives?  I keep thinking in my head, we’ve got to keep the goal of reducing the carbon footprint of this gigantic business in mind; is something as technocratic as reducing the wrong incentives going to be enough?

JS: No, and Christophe says that the most important thing that we can do is introduce a carbon tax to increase the price of domestic and imported goods based on their emissions.  Like the successful sugar tax this would internalise some of the negative human and environmental costs of unhealthy foods, encourage more sustainable production and hopefully discourage unsustainable consumption.

CB: The first best instrument is to apply a carbon tax.  A tax should apply to both your domestic producers and your imported food and it should be based on the carbon content of the goods.

GW: The carbon tax is what everybody talks about and my question is always how do you make it real, how do you actually price and tax carbon?

CB: Internalising the environmental costs, it really raises a lot of methodological challenges, how do you measure the environmental impact or the environmental cost, is it the same for all products, is it the same depending on where the product is being product, but it’s not impossible and we don’t need to have something that is absolutely perfect.

JS: So, Christophe warns against absolutism here, and again says don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to these initiatives, but certainly in order to introduce a carbon tax we must know where emissions are produced.   Here’s Moreno Di Marco again.

MDM: For the future we cannot do it without international cooperation.  One of the things in do for my research is actually looking at future scenarios of food production and what might happen to the environment if we decide to produce food in one way or the other and whether we decide to do it in a way which is cooperating internationally or whether we want to work individualistically as nations for example in food production.  And yes, for sure I can tell you that reducing international cooperation is going to be bad for the environment because less environmental cooperation will probably mean a global increase in the amount of land needed to produce food because every nation will have to do it on its own.  And so clearly international cooperation is a key asset that we need to keep in mind and we need to use.  We really need to strengthen the cooperation for achieving international environmental agreements and I’m talking about, for example, the Paris Agreement on climate change and I’m talking about the UN agenda for sustainable development and each and every element of the agenda, I’m talking about agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.  And all these agreements add no weight unless different countries decide to cooperate together in achieving them, and so if we don’t want these agreements to remain paper thin we really need as a society to endorse and to ask our politicians to commit to the achievement of these objectives and these thoughts, and we really need to be ready to change our lifestyles and especially change our consumption model because without big societal change I don’t think any of these agreements will be meaningfully achievable.

JS: I think what Moreno says here is really interesting because it challenges the whole localism that started off my investigation.  International trade isn’t necessarily the enemy of the global food industry; 80 per cent of the global population still depends on imports to meet their food requirements, so just as we cannot afford to phase out domestic food production nor can we aim for total self-sufficiency, so more, but more cooperative and more regulated international trade is key.

GW: Jelena, this is fascinating because everything has been turned on its head.  Food miles it turns out is a myth or at least we might be paying too much attention to it, we need more or at least more regulated international trade, but I can’t help coming back to the goal which is net zero for this incredibly carbon intensive industry that we all depend on.  How do we get there, what is your overall takeaway from all your research, what have you learned?

JS: Aside from debunking the buy local myth I’ve also realised how important it is that we recognise generally how human and planetary health goals are intertwined and therefore how environmental, economic and cultural motivations which are often posed in juxtaposition in sustainability debates do not necessarily need to conflict.  Similarly, we have local and global responsibilities towards the peoples and places affected by our consumption and therefore we must take action as individuals too. 

After listening to all these individuals throughout the supply chain I’ve kind of come up with a bit of a theory of trickle down economic and knowledge incentivisation.  It starts with government incentivised business initiatives, so governments setting, monitoring and incentivising a framework for more sustainable and economically and environmentally efficient production and consumption.  That means clear regulations and environmental targets, and allowing businesses the flexibility to meet those targets through different measures, whether they’re small or large.  It also means committing to investment as part of a wider shift towards more environmental policies like decarbonising transport and production more generally.  So, for instance land conversion is a central policy target across systems and achieving net zero deforestation means eliminating five million hectares of conversion from agricultural supply chains every year.  We need that legislation in order to prevent further agricultural expansion and to restore already degraded land.  It’s important to point out again that economic and environmental motivations don’t necessarily conflict here.  So as Anna pointed out at present just two point eight per cent of the UK’s arable land is used for horticulture, the rest for farming livestock and their feed, so if we promote horticulture, we could support human and environmental health goals, domestic producers and diversity in our supply.  Really, they’re win-win wins in that sense.  So then from government incentivised business initiative we can move down to business incentivised consumption and the role of businesses as initiators who must monitor and communicate their impact to consumers so that they can make more informed choices, but it’s important to remember that knowledge flows both ways here and therefore businesses and governments must be accountable to national and international emissions targets too.

GW: Jelena, thank you very much.  There you have it, trickle down incentivisation.  I can’t help thinking there’s a bit of trickle up as well in terms of the knowledge that we all have to gather as consumers about the food that we eat, but I’ve learned a lot and thank you very much for delving so deeply into such an important subject.

Thank you so much Giles, I hope I’ve managed to explain some of my forays in a bit more detail.

Thanks so much.


Produced and reported by: Jelena Sofronijevic

Editor: Imy Harper

Illustration: Lizzie Lomax

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