When terms like “fair trade” and “sustainability” so plague policy discussions over the environment and development, it really is quite an achievement to reach the status of most vacuous phrase. However, “food miles” really is so useless, so meaningless, so damaging a concept that, despite the fierce competition, it truly is the most vacuous phrase in policy discussions today.
The idea of looking at simply the distance which an item of food had to travel to reach its destination as a means of assessing its environmental, let alone social or economic, cost is patently absurd. Any sort of environmental impact study would have to consider the energy consumed producing the food (e.g. lighting and heating a greenhouse), the energy used in producing the chemical pesticides and fertilisers, the impact of those chemicals on the local environment, and the land space saved by using intensive farming methods rather than the “organic” methods so loved by environmentalists - to feed our current population by “organic” means would require 82% of total land to be cultivated: that means chopping down forests and growing food in deserts - methods so hated by environmentalists.
Clearly, then, the distance travelled by food before it reaches our shelves is only one component of its wider environmental impact. Indeed, it is often of negligible effect by comparison to other factors. That is why tomatoes grown in Spain are more environmentally friendly that those grown in Britain, and lamb from New Zealand better than lamb reared in Europe.
So even if you accept the view that we should judge our consumption choices on the basis of their environmental impact, there is no reason for thinking that air miles should be considered. Not only is the concept worthless, it is also very damaging. Purchasing local food means not purchasing food from Africa. As we have noted before, engaging in free trade with African and other impoverished nations is the only means to bring about sustained growth in their living conditions. It is in food production that many of these countries have comparative advantage and so trading with wealthy consumers is their best, if not only, chance at development. Yet if those who talk of air miles had their way we would not only deprive these people of their only chance, we would actively pursue policies that hurt them. Indeed, this is where food miles can be a truly insidious concept. The notion is being latched upon by European farmers as an excuse to justify the continuation of the Common Agricultural Policy. They know that arguments about food security, the original reason for the CAP, will no longer cut it. They know that arguments about preserving ancient French farming practices for cultural enrichment will no longer cut it. So they now argue we need the CAP so that more environmentally friendly farming can be protected. The Common Agricultural Policy is an abomination – it requires that hard working taxpayers hand money over to Brussels, which can then be given to powerful farming interest groups so that these farmers can then charge the same hard working taxpayers more for their food. Taxpayers are asked to pay for the privilege of having a more expensive shopping bill. It is this madness that “food miles” supports.
Yet none of this stops supposed “environmentalists” from continuing to talk about food miles, and, according to the Metro, they might be convincing people. Consumers want more locally produced food and shops to do more to provide it, because they are concerned about the environmental impact of food miles. Well, here’s a suggestion. Why don’t we remove all the damaging tariffs and subsidies that taxpayers are made to pay for, then allow food from developing countries to compete equally with British food? In the free market, every pound spent is a vote cast. If people really wanted more local food then surely they would be happy to pay for it in a competitive market. They would cast their pound votes and shops would have to respond. Then we would see how much British consumers care about the absurd notion of food miles.