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Food Miles, or ‘Fair Miles’

When you make your purchases, are you struggling over the decision to ‘shop local’ or ‘support the poor in distant lands’? If so, read this.

I had been meaning to make a post on the subject of ‘Food Miles, or Fair Miles’, and finding this article from Reuters provided an ideal vehicle to do so. Please consider the following:

Farmers’ markets across the country are buzzing with conscientious customers buying locally grown knobbly carrots and leeks pulled straight from the soil.

With the threat of climate change racing up the global political agenda, Britons are going green when they shop. And their sights are set on food miles.

“The concept of food miles has absolutely rightly entered into people’s consciousness in Britain,” says Bill Vorley, head of the sustainable markets group at the British International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) think-tank.

The idea of reducing food miles seems straightforward — simply buy produce which has travelled the shortest possible distance from farm to plate.

However, just as British consumers’ enthusiasm to cut food miles is growing, some experts are warning that an over-simplistic view of the issue risks doing more harm than good.

They are urging policymakers not to rush blindly into formulating “buy-local-only” campaigns for consumers which could prove disastrous for many poor African food producers….

The problem, experts say, is that consumers keen to do their bit for the environment but as yet unaware of the complexities of the debate are shopping with a simplistic “local good, foreign bad” attitude.

As long as the apples, carrots, broccoli and leeks are produced in Britain, they can be bought in abundance with a clear conscience, the thinking goes. But if the label says they come from Israel, Kenya or New Zealand, only a carbon criminal would dare take them to the checkout.

However, some argue that fair miles, not food miles, should be the criterion by which consumers judge the contents of their shopping trolleys. Specifically, fresh fruit and vegetables from sub-Saharan Africa, on which Britons spend more than a million pounds a day, should be considered more carefully.

“Many products which come to us from Africa are giving some of the poorest people in some of the poorest countries in the world a chance to earn a decent living,” said Harriet Lamb, executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation, an independent certification body that guarantees poor producers in the developing world a fair price for their goods…. Alertnet

The article also touches on the point that buying locally doesn’t necessarily reduce emissions – depending on the methods and efficiencies used where said produce is sourced. It’s possible, for example, that shoppers in London purchasing produce from an inefficiently run farm in Kent may be favouring ‘the bad guy’ over a more eco-minded farmer producing goods organically in southern France, or even as far away as New Zealand. Each source needs to be considered on its own merits.

But, today I want to consider just the point raised above. According to Harriet Lamb, our purchases are “giving some of the poorest people in some of the poorest countries in the world a chance to earn a decent living.” For the sake of argument, please consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1) A hard-working small-scale farmer in sub-Saharan Africa lives a sustainable existence on his family farm (selling the bulk of his excess produce locally, with the exception of a few specialty items to the European market through a local distributor), but then has his livelihood stolen away from him and his family as European consumers decide to shop local.

Scenario 2) A sub-Saharan farm labourer, earning a pittance working for a large-scale farm project (the result of a buy-out of many smaller farms by a wealthy agribusinessman) loses his job as European consumers decide to shop local.

Hopefully you noticed that the first sentence doesn’t make sense! The farmer in scenario one is not entirely dependent on the whims of the European market, and will ride out a shift of purchasing decisions made thousands of miles away. This scenario is the healthy ideal – the goal of sustainability, and the embodiment of a stable, low-carbon lifestyle.

The latter worker, in scenario two, has already fallen prey to a system he has no power over. This is the point I would like to consider. Are not our purchasing dollars promoting scenario two – where the attraction of our western currencies cause the dismantling of small-scale rural agriculture (scenario one) in favour of increased centralisation and control by transnational corporations/supermarkets?

These supermarkets demand large regular deliveries of standardised produce (virtually identical size and shape of ‘transport optimised’ fruit and vegetables), and exact a high environmental cost in stringent sanitation and packaging demands. To facilitate this, energy (and water) intensive western-style farming methods are replicated in the South (fossil-fuel based fertilisers, pesticides, and heavy mechanised equipment are utilised), instead of more labour-intensive (employment-providing), sustainable, CO2 absorbing and water-conserving systems. The increased mechanisation means less people are required to work the land, resulting in more and more people moving into cities/slums that cannot contain them, as well as an escalation of crime, disease, and also the same soil depletion problems that have been the result of this conventional agricultural system in the North.

Is this our gift to Africa?

The cities of today’s sub-Saharan Africa are growing an at alarming 5% per year – faster than anywhere else in the world (see here, and here).

Third World countries are being pressured to ‘modernise’ their agriculture – partly to satisfy IMF conditionalties, partly because the FAO, the agro-chemical industry and the farm machinery companies are pushing them to do so. This push towards industrial agriculture favours very large plantations, because small farms can’t afford all the inputs required. The result is that small farmers are pushed off the land, and ultimately into the slums. For example, India has 800 million people, and 600 million still live off the land. If India adopts modern agriculture, which is what they are expected to do, the country will end up with farms of 500 acres and only 3% of the population producing food for everyone else. They’ll be able to produce their food with 20 million people. But what do you do with the other 580 million? Shoot them? That would be the honest, the humane thing to do. But instead they’ll be pushed into the slums. – From the Ground Up, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture, p. 39.

What is a “decent living” by Harriet’s standards? If we are asked to consider the plight of the humble farm worker in Africa – then yes, please, let’s really do so. Are our purchasing dollars helping support native Africans in their bid to have a small patch of ground, and live low-carbon, self-sufficient and sustainable lives, perhaps selling/trading their excess locally? Or, are we instead financing their plug into the global economy, effectively subscribing them to an energy-intensive ecologically unsustainable factory-farm system of agriculture that has only a few people (farm owners, distributors, and transnationals) making the real profits? Is prosperity reaching the individual that wields the farm implement, or is the bulk of the money heading out-of-country to seed and chemical companies, manufacturers of heavy equipment and to western supermarket chains?

The Reuters article continues:

“And it’s something like a million livelihoods that depend on us (in Britain) enjoying fresh fruit and vegetables from sub-Saharan Africa,” says Lamb. “Let’s make sure we’re not making poor people in poor countries pay the price.”

According to Stephen Mbugua, vice-chairman of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, that is not happening yet, but it is a great fear for the future.

“So far so good, we’ve not had any serious impact from this, (but) if there was a serious campaign, it certainly would affect our sales,” he told Reuters in Nairobi. Alertnet

Are these industry representatives really considering the little guy, or laying down a guilt trip to protect industry interests? Consider this:

The Netherlands depends on 15-16 million hectares of cropland in other countries to supplement its own two million hectares, and the United Kingdom consumes the produce of two hectares abroad for every one farmed at home. In 1982, Brazil devoted 8.2 million hectares to growing soya beans that were then exported to Europe as livestock feed. The same area could have produced sufficient protein in the form of black beans to feed 25 million people. The South exports more protein to feed livestock than comes back in food aid. – From the Ground Up, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture, p. 40.

…combined with this report from India:

While people die of hunger, the government sits atop a mountain of foodgrains. In 2001, starvation deaths were reported in over 13 States while the storage facilities of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) over-flowed with grain, some of it rotting and rat-infested.

There was a proposal to dump it in the sea, to make storage space for the next crop, when export markets could not be found for this surplus. In 2002, reports of hunger and starvation deaths came in regularly from the progressive and economically fast-growing States — Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The Hindu Business Line

Sustainable farming and self-sufficiency
puts pride back into local communities

One thing is sure, by outsourcing our food requirements we’ve created an environmental and ethical dilemma. More and more people are coming to the realisation that shopping local is an ecological necessity. By making a sudden shift in our buying habits, the economic impacts may be felt around the world, just like the climatic results of global warming. There obviously needs to be a transition phase. The vehicle for that transition may potentially be the gradual pace of consumer awakening itself. Let it not be more.

Instead of encouraging mass urbanisation through the amalgamation and centralisation of rural farming economies, what would happen if we funneled our aid endeavours at training small-scale farmers in developing countries how to successfully stay just that – small scale? Instead of pillaging their lands, and throwing back a few bones in the form of ‘charitable aid’, perhaps we could thereby make a real difference. There’s a well known saying – “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day – teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” If we can transfer that sentiment over to sustainable organic farming, I believe we’d be onto a winner.

People will feed themselves, if allowed to do so. It’s not our job to ‘set things right’ for others. Our responsibility is to remove the obstacles in their paths, obstacles often created by large corporations and U.S. government, World Bank and IMF policies.-

At this point I should make a confession. I’m a ‘westerner’, and am ashamed to admit that I’ve lived a western life. I haven’t been in the shoes of a peasant farmer in Kenya, Tanzania, or, in fact, anywhere. Is it callous of me to want you to stop sending your hard currency to the poorer parts of the world? Verdana Shiva is a well known promoter of organic farming, and she speaks from a personal history I cannot lay claim to, in that she is from India and has seen first-hand the impact of an aggressive globalised economy on her country. This is what she has to say, speaking recently at a Soil Association conference in the UK:

There are two kinds of one world agriculture – there’s a one planet agriculture that respects the laws of the planet and maintains the processes of the planet, and there’s another one planet agriculture that reduces the planet to a supermarket. And then of course it seeks the cheapest from the furthest away which means longer food miles which also means more industrialisation and more mechanisation.

For those of you who feel troubled that the new certification consideration that food that has been flown in will not be certified by Soil Association, and you are feeling troubled about the farmer in Kenya, or the farmer in India, let me tell you, by the time huge volumes of exports happen in lettuce or beans or baby corn, the farmer is the first to go.

Their land is taken away and put in the hands of agribusiness. An agribusiness through corporate farming does the exports. It’s not peasants. The peasant was finished at the beginning of the process. So in fact by your refusing to add to food miles and add to carbon emissions you are in fact giving protection. You’re not just protecting the atmosphere, you’re protecting a peasant economy. — Transcript of part of podcast

We can’t keep leaching off the poverty of the South. When considering the “food miles or fair miles?” question – ask yourself, are ‘fair miles’ really fair? Is the money we spend at our local supermarket actually ending up where we think it is, or are we promoting the disintegration of the small local farming communities that are our last hope in combating ecological destruction and global inequality?

Highly Recommended Further Reading:


  1. Brilliant. A well formulated argument. One I will use to dispel any doubters of the buy local movement and something I will read more into. Cheers

  2. Great article Craig. I hadn’t thought a great deal about what effects reducing food miles would have on people in food exporting countries, but you saved me the whole thought process and it just makes sense that allowing the poor to grow their own sustainable food supply has to be so much better than letting them be over run by western agribusiness.

    The less thought about problem with trying to become more sustainable in western countries is the “organics miles” for lack of a better term. What uses more energy, shipping down a few dozen tomatoes from Queensland to the southern states or shipping down half a dozen bales of sugar cane mulch to grow the same supply of tomatoes? organics need to be locally grown as well

    As for the equipment that western style agribusiness has brought to the poorer parts of the world, it should be going cheap with less demand for produce in western countries. If aid agency’s could acquire these implements and do short term leasing to small farmers, imagine the impact keyline plowing or swale and dam building or green waste recycling could make in the developing countries.

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