• 28/05/13
  • Comments: 5

applemilesBy Mike Small

This weekend The Observer gave over their magazine cover to Jay Rayner’s claim that ‘everything you believe about locally sourced food is wrong’ (you can read it here). The piece deserves little attention, but given it has already got such a high profile it’s worth responding (briefly) to correct some of the nonsense it is based on.

If I was to write a restaurant review I’m sure I’d make a fool of myself,  and it certainly seems as if Jay is out of his depth in the arena of food sustainability, but he has a book to promote and a willing media outlet.

He starts by an anecdote about one of these endless tv chef competitions he was a judge on, and how the contestant Rick Moonen was criticised by Rayner for shipping venison from New Zealand to Los Angeles for the competition. He goes on to explain how shipping lamb, apples and dairy from New Zealand to Britain has a lower carbon foodprint than the equivalent in Britain citing a much trumpeted (cherished even) report from 2006.

Setting aside for a moment the whole ghastly display of weird bourgeois obsessiveness that the tv-food-chef-restaurant-foody industry represents, the argument doesn’t stack up, despite the oceans of publicity it has created. Here’s why:


It’s important to understand food miles not just as the air-freighted asparagus or the food traded unnecessarily. All forms of transport are involved and the idea put forward that shipping is some kind of benign element of the chain doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny. Transportation by shipping produces 1 billion metric tonnes of C02 emissions & uses 11 billion gallons of fuel per year internationally. In fact the amount of sulphur oxide pollution that comes from 15 largest ships equals the combined amount from all the cars in the world.

The reality is that transporting goods about the world that we have no need to creates an unnecessary pollution.

Food Miles as a Single Indicator

Rayner makes great play of this idea that: “the end of food miles as a single indicator makes everything very complicated”.

Except of course that no-one ever really took ‘food miles as a single indicator’ instead using ideas and measurements such as: soil quality, embedded water, environmental justice, refrigeration chain, nutrient-content, biodiversity-impact and other essential factors into account.

But a basic question: ‘Could I get this produce from my own region at this time of year?‘ remains an essential (and simple) question to ask.


Food re-localisation is still an absolutely essential part of the food sustainability debate. It’s key.

But it’s key not just because food miles do create massive unnecessary emissions but because there are a host of other reasons why it’s good to buy local. Freshness is one. Transparency is another*. Supporting local farmers and helping create (financially) sustainable local economies is another one.

That these things are so easily understood and command such widespread public support doesn’t mean they are simplistic, it just means that people are recovering  their common sense from decades of mad globalisation.

Yield as a Metric

Jay Rayner makes a big effort to focus on figures for yield (he ends up getting a right old muddle about potatoes and apples). But let’s look at yield – if you want to talk about people using a ‘single metric’ – this is is the one that entire industries are based on.

Yield as a sole metric has disastrous consequences. It leads to an exhaustive aspiration to get more and more and more out of the same amount of land, the same amount of soil.

In order to understand yield you need to examine inputs. In Rayner’s world there is a something for nothing fantasy where food comes from the land of bounty as if by magic.

This is industry fightback and a determined effort to argue the case for ‘business as usual’, and to be honest, if my job was to eat out, who’d want to change a thing? The world must seem a pretty wonderful place decked in white linen and typing out articles between amuse-bouche.

But the real key to understanding Jay Rayner’s New Zealand research is in para 2: “The food miles concept has the potential to threaten New Zealand exports”  – as it does to all. Reconceptualising trade and export based on the criteria of food sovereignty and based on climate realities means a massive social change. No doubt, but that’s the challenge the 350 generation face. That’s the challenge we face as a species, not just as a generation.

The ‘threat to ‘exports’ is nothing next to the threat of business as usual and the mass inertia represented by this piece.

As one person commented after Jay’s article: “How about another paradigm Jay? Instead of comparing which is the lesser of two carbon heavy systems, namely importing food around the world vs modern chemical based monoculture, how about promoting natural systems which leave a far smaller footprint?”

This makes sense.

There’s a global movement to change the way we eat – it’s part of the wider environmental movement for pressing essential change. We’re proud to be part of that movement but I don’t think I’ll be taking my lessons from someone who’s ‘job’ is to eat in restaurants.


Mike Small is the author of Scotland’s Local Food Revolution (Scotland’s Local Food Revolution by Mike Small (Paperback) (ISBN: 9781908931269)


* You might think that transparency might be a ‘good idea’ given the recent horse meat fiasco.



  • Admin
    The Fife Diet June 24, 2013 at 09:21

    Hi Jaideep, thanks very much for your comment. If my style was mocking it was in response to Jay’s which was in that tone.

    I’ll try and answer your question.

    We’re just publishing our carbon report (which has been independently tested) on how we have made some significant savings by thousands of people making a number of changes to their food consumption behaviour. This is an evidence based approach and not based on raw opinion.

    It is an approach based not on one metric ‘local’ but on six, as follows: eat local, eat different meat, grow some of your own food, compost more, waste less, eat more organic. It is these changes taken together which contribute to a more sustainable and more ethical food system.

    The scenario you describe of the 2 miles versus the added miles of the farmer isn’t a system I advocate, most of our members for eg have their food delivered by vans running on recycled food waste as biodiesel. You are right to point out that there are logistical challenges in

    The hidden costs in our food system are huge. Let’s ignore the health impacts of our current food trends and just look at the carbon challenge.

    The Food Climate Research Network and WWF-UK report – ‘How Low Can We Go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050′ (2010) – that quantifies the UK’s food carbon footprint – taking into account emissions from land use change – and explores a range of scenarios for achieving a 70% cut in food related greenhouse gas emissions. Previous estimates by the FCRN and others had found that the food chain accounts for around 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, this report found that, once food related land use change impacts were included in the calculation, the contribution from food rises to 30% of the UK total.

    You can read the FCRN report ‘How Low Can We Go?’ here: http://www.fcrn.org.uk/fcrn/publications/how-low-can-we-go

    It’s fully researched and peer-reviewed. As I said our own carbon report will be public shortly and deals with these issues in a Scottish context.

    So, we really need to operate in the land of looking at the present system and examining alternatives as a matter or urgency.

    Thanks again for your comment and input, if be happy to discuss these reports and figures further with you.

    all the best


  • Jaideep Sidhu June 22, 2013 at 03:03

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the article. I am afraid that I see a lot of personal attacks in your post and it is my belief that, (1) one doesn’t need to raise one’s voice to get rationale across, and (2) personal attacks muddle facts and confuse the audience. As Jay has mentioned, there are no references to your stats. I am sure that you will agree that we don’t want to have blind followers but we should rather present reason and logic to the readers. However, I do want to ask if the 1 billion metric tonnes of CO2 emitted is solely due to the transportation of food alone or if it is for shipping all things around the planet? You have mentioned that we are shipping things that we don’t need. How about shipping oil from an oil rich country to one solely dependent on oil imports? How about shipping coffee and chocolate which cannot grow everywhere? How about shipping medicines and food packets to countries with not very affluent economies?

    I have a basic question. Right now, let’s suppose I drive 2 miles to a local superstore where I can buy pretty much everything that I need on a weekly basis. However, I decide to change my habit and instead begin driving to a local farmer’s market for fresh produce. Thus, in addition to the 2 miles that I need to drive (for non-produce needs), I also need to drive an extra, let’s say another 2 miles (although farmer’s markets are fewer and sparse). In essence, I have doubled my weekly grocery trip miles. Slowly, more consumers begin going to the farmer’s market as well and double (just as an example) their grocery miles. Isn’t this snowballing into a greater fuel consumption at the community level?

    Secondly, the fuel required to move a unit weight of food (or a consumer good in general) is less in case of huge trucks (or ships) as compared to a farmer’s personal car/truck/van. I think my point is obvious, transporting a lot items separately over short distances takes more fuel that transporting them in bulk even over long distances.

    What do you think? (and please, I will appreciate if we stick to facts rather than my writing style or my choice of words or what I do for a living)

    As for my point on shipping goods via ships here is excerpt from an article, the link to which is copied below:

    “Maritime transportation accounts for 90% of cross-border world trade as measured by volume. The nature of water transport and its economies of scale make it the most energy efficient mode since it uses only 7% of all the energy consumed by transport activities, a figure way below its contribution to the mobility of goods.”


  • Admin
    The Fife Diet May 30, 2013 at 09:51

    Thanks for responding Jay.

    Maybe you’re suffering from using a misrepresentative extract from your book for shock value?

    Yield is a baffling distraction given obscene food waste. The ‘problem’ is not about production, productivity or yield, the ‘problem’ is poverty and lack of access to food. If we trebled production tomorrow that wouldn’t solve food poverty. The issue is well defined by Raj Patel in ‘Stuffed and Starved’ – the simultaneous existence of 1 billion malnourished people and 1 billion suffering from obesity isn’t a coincidence it’s the inevitable outcome of allowing a handful of corporations to control the food system.

    A Life Cycle Analysis can be beneficial, there’s no doubt, but it often works within the constraints of the current worldview. So what it is essentially doing is comparing one hopelessly unsustainable system with another then saying ‘See!’

    It’s like comparing a ferrari with a porsche and discovering that one has a marginal better fuel efficiency. The point – and the challenge – is to use a bike instead.

    So with the question of apples, the study you quote may be right (though as you probably know it’s very much contested in academic circles – you do know this right?). But the question remains do we actually need to import apples? What would be more beneficial would be to look at organic local apple production and compare that with New Zealand imports. As one of the commentators on your Guardian/Observer piece put it:

    “I would be very careful about using the (non peer-reviewed) Saunders report as evidence for a number of reasons:

    1) It is clearly biased (e.g. measuring chilling of UK apples, but not of NZ apples and I know for a fact that NZ apples can be chilled for 11 months so they appear as “early season apple”- I’ve worked in NZ apple orchards. Also no mention of the cost of chilling milk in the transportation from NZ, the list goes on.

    2) The sea transport “costs” from NZ are based on assumed carbon emissions of 0.007 kgCO2/t-km, whereas 0.01 kgCO2/t-km appears to be more accurate and for some goods (such as apples and onions this would make all the difference).

    3) The whole report is based on a faulty methodology, using embodied energy and ignoring direct emissions for fertilizers etc… Doing it properly would probably favour NZ for sheep and dairy production, but as it was not done properly who knows?


    We’ll be publishing a comprehensive carbon report next week on our members collective impact using a six points of measurement to calculate carbon reduction with us moving collectively to a more sustainable way of eating.

    I’ll send you a link?


    PS are you doubting the shipping emission stats or the role of shipping in C02?

  • Jay Rayner May 30, 2013 at 09:10

    Thanks for all this. I finally have a moment in my week in which to respond. I think from the ‘ghastly display of weird bourgeois obsessiveness’ line we can see where you start from, but let’s put that aside. It’s harder to ignore the jibe that I’m a restaurant critic out of my depth. I’ve been a reporter for 25 years, dealing with many and various detailed stories, many of them around food. As it happens I have a nice piece of glass wear courtesy of the Guild of Food Writers, that I picked up on Wednesday night which acknowledges my role as a reporter. Hurrah for me etc. The book from which the extract was taken is not just something I tossed off, but a project that has been underway for years.

    But let’s move to your points. You don’t say where your shipping emissions stats come from. But even if they stand up you appear to be confusing the entire impact of shipping with that involving the movement of the food stuffs I was looking at. The point remains that the carbon footprint of those products raised in New Zealand and brought to Britain is still lower than the equivalent generally produced in the UK (there will of course always be exceptions). And, as I say in the extract, I did not base the assertion on that one study. There are a whole bunch of them to stand up the general point that what matters is not where your food is grown but how; the New Zealand study was just the most extreme example. Absolutely everything around food’s life cycle has to be considered. The fact stands: Transportation is a relatively small proportion of the carbon footprint.

    You then quote the line from the report about the way the food miles argument challenges New Zealand exports. Again, as it says in the piece, I had exactly the same thoughts which was why I consulted Tim Benton, who leads and coordinates research in Britain into food security. I wanted to know whether this was just a bit of shameless massaging by the NZ food industry. The response: actually no. It isn’t. You may not approve of the motivation for the report but that doesn’t make its findings wrong.

    You go on to say that there are other reasons for wanting to shop and eat local. And again if you look at the piece you’ll see that I absolutely agree with you. There are other reasons. Some of them are very good reasons (especially the support of local economies). The fact is, however, that a lot of the dogma around localism is focussed on it being the most sustainable model because of its low carbon footprint and I’m afraid that just doesn’t stand up to any examination. Climate change is posing the most extraordinary challenge to this planet’s ability to feed itself. A low carbon food economy has to be a number one priority. I’m baffled that anyone could disagree, or think there could be other things actually more important than that.

    You then suggest I’m obsessed by yield. Yes, I am, but it has to be sustainable. We cannot just rape the planet. We need to be smart and find ways to produce more food without degrading our resources. For me everything is about global context: the coming nine billion, the exploding middle classes in China who are fighting for the right to live and eat like us (and who here in this part of the world wants to tell them that they may not?), the 2.6 million children who die each year from a condition underpinned by chronic malnutrition. That’s 300 children every hour. When people question the need to increase our yield I want to ask a simple question back: how many dead children every hour is fine by you? 250? 450? 100? What?

    I fully accept the point you made that you were entitled to respond to the extract as presented. But I would, again, say that the food miles section was only 2000 words out of 85000 words; that if you read the whole book you will see the nuances in the argument, that I’m not just telling everyone in Britain to get all their food from New Zealand and so on. I genuinely think that if you read the book you’ll find that you agree with me on more than you might imagine. If you don’t want to add to my royalties just borrow it from a local library

    Best wishes
    Jay Rayner

  • Rosie Hopes May 29, 2013 at 10:47

    Good response to this. Food miles aren’t enough on their own, but carbon footprint isn’t either. The idea that the space and water that a lamb or deer takes up on the Scottish hillside is detrimental to the environment is just silly.

    If the lamb isn’t there, the rain will still fall (a lot), the land will still be there and we can’t use it to produce anything much else except grass.

    You can’t compare that with the fuel used to ship the same lamb all the way from New Zealand.