Buy local produce and save the world: why food costs £4bn more than we think

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

03 March 2005

Every major supermarket spends millions of pounds a day making sure their
warehouse-sized stores are brimming with products ranging from Kenyan
mangetout to Scottish potatoes.

But the true costs of producing and transporting food to and from the
supermarket shelf are far greater than any checkout receipt suggests. A
study that tries for the first time to calculate the real size of our food
bill has found we are indirectly spending billions of pounds a year extra
on food without realising it.

Government statistics show each person in Britain spends an average of
£24.79 a week on food. But if the hidden costs of transport and the
impact on the environment were included, this bill would rise by 12 per
cent, the study found.

Professor Jules Pretty, of Essex University, and Professor Tim Lang, of
City University, in London, said another way of looking at the problem was
to assess the national savings that could be made if everything was done

They reckoned more than £4bn a year could be saved if farmers grew
organically, farming subsidies were abolished and if consumers shopped for
local produce, preferably on their bikes. The issue centres on the concept
of "food miles" which refers to the distance travelled by produce from farm
to fork.

The scientists tried to assess the added expense of bringing food from
around the UK and the wider world to the typical British dinner table. By
analysing foodstuffs, farming methods and transport policies, professors
Pretty and Lang found that if all of our food came from within 20km (12.4
miles) of where we live we could save £2.1bn a year in environmental and
congestion costs.

They also found that if shopping by car was replaced by bus, bicycle or
walking, these savings would amount to a further £1.1bn. And if all farms
in Britain were to follow organic principles, the costs to the environment
would fall from £1.5bn a year to less than £400m, a further saving of
£1.1bn. "Food miles are more important than we thought and buying local
is more important than buying green," Professor Pretty said at the Science
Media Centre in London. "It's better to buy a local lettuce than an organic
one from the other side of Europe."

The study, in the journal Food Policy, found 28 per cent of all freight on
the roads of Britain is agricultural produce. Not only is more food being
transported by road - up by 23 per cent in 20 years - but it is being
carried 65 per cent further than it was in the 1980s.

In effect, Professor Pretty said, Britons are paying three times for their
food: once at the supermarket till, twice in costs to the environment and
the third time in farming subsidies.

The study found the "air mile" costs of importing food from abroad were
trivial compared with the huge costs of transporting home-produced food
around the country. "The most political act we do on a daily basis is to
eat, because our actions affect farms, landscapes and food businesses,"
Professor Pretty said. "Food miles are much more significant than we
thought, and much needs to be done to encourage local production and
consumption of food."

Professor Lang said he invented the concept of food miles 15 years ago to
articulate the problem of hidden costs of agricultural production. "How far
food travels is becoming more important for policy makers and consumers
alike," he said. "For example, fruits and vegetables travelling
long-distance or short-distance may deliver similar nutrition or look the
same, but environmentally they are poles apart."

One way to tackle the problem would be to force supermarkets to label food
with the distance it has travelled. "Supermarkets should put food miles on
products," Professor Lang added. "They have invested billions in a
hyper-efficient, just-in-time system of food distribution, and actually,
it's just cuckoo. This is an area where consumers are suffering from an
information deficit."


Environmental cost of farming: £1.1bn a year

If all farms were organic it would save £1.1bn a year. Removing
pesticides from water supplies, for example, adds £250m a year to water
bills. Other costs range from pollution to losses in soil and biodiversity,
and costs in human and animal health, such as BSE and antibiotic
resistance. Hidden costs of £1.5bn a year could be cut to £385m.

Environmental cost of food transport £2.1bn a year

28 per cent of road freight is food or produce; 1.6 billion tons are
carried 149 billion ton-kilometres. 23 per cent more food than 20 years ago
is on the roads and it is travelling 65 per cent further. Each person
makes, on average, 221 shopping trips per year with an average length of
6.4km, up from 4km in 1985. £2.1bn could be saved if all food was locally

Hidden farming subsidy costs: up to £1bn

The average annual cost of agricultural subsidies paid by the UK taxpayer
was £3.1bn with an extra £2bn in 2001-04 for the foot-and-mouth
epidemic. Until 2004, agricultural subsidies mostly supported production
that caused adverse environmental impacts. Some subsidies can improve the
environment but without them, subsidies still total £2.9bn a year.

* The average person eats 11.68kg (25.7lbs) of food a week

* Typical weekly food shopping costs £17.26 and an extra £7.53 is spent
on eating out

* About 12.2 million tons of food is imported each year and 7.4 million is

* Britain exports about 400,000 tons of milk each year, and imports a
similar amount from abroad

* The biggest hidden costs of food arise from the rearing of livestock,
with beef and veal imposing the largest impact on the environment

* Each person makes, on average, 221 shopping trips a year, covering an
average distance of four miles

* Britons spend about £89bn a year on food

King of kings' Bible - Isaiah 2:4 And he shall judge among the nations, and
shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against
nation, neither shall they learn war any more (but go back to the land
instead of cities).

Time is running out:-

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