A christmas dinner with turkey and trimmings

Food miles for Christmas dinner and implications on carbon footprint

What is a food mile?

Food miles measure how far has your food travelled from where it is grown to where it is eaten.

They are one of the indicators which we can use to assess the environmental sustainability impact of foods. The further food travels from farm to fork, the greater its negative environmental impact.

It is important to think about not just the distance but also the means of transport used to move the food on your plate between its origin and your dining room table; flying foods by air generates 10 times more carbon emissions than moving it by road, and 50 times more than using ships.

Where did the term come from?

‘Food mile’ was coined in the UK with The Food Miles Report published by the SAFE Alliance in 1994. It has gained increasing popularity in the UK media, as 45% of food consumed in the UK was imported in 2019 and as consumers have become more aware of the issues around carboon footprints of what is in their kitchen.

Christmas dinner food miles

In 2010, it was estimated that the average Christmas dinner could have travelled 262,253 milesto reach your plate – the equivalent of travelling more than ten times around the world. Many of the traditional Christmas ingredients are sourced from incredibly distanced countries – turkeys from Brazil, carrots from South Africa, spice from Sri Lanka, cheese from Canada, and rum from Puerto Rico.

There are three reasons for the long food miles for your Christmas dinner:

  • Consumers want to buy seasonal foods all year round: seasonal foods such as strawberries need to be flown into the UK from warmer climates.
  • Consumers want cheaper foods: cheap foods require efficient logistics systems to move from farms to shops, unlike local markets. Foods such as British fish are sometimes sent to countries with lower labour costs, such as China, for processing.
  • Consumers want more processed foods: ingredients for processed foods, such as a simple prepared salad box, need to travel around the country from factory to factory before making their way to the shops.

Reducing the carbon footprint of your food

Climate change is causing rising anxiety throughout the world, with 8 out of 10 people seeing it as a severe danger to their nation. Research from Ritchie (2020) states that one-quarter of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions result from food production alone.  

There is a rising realisation that our food choices and nutrition have a substantial influence on our carbon footprint. What can you do to make your breakfasts, lunches and dinners have a lower carbon footprint? Quite often we are recommended to adopt the ‘eating local’ attitude. Intuitively it makes sense – transportation does cause emissions, however, this is misleading.  

Eating locally would only have a substantial impact if transportation accounted for a considerable portion of the ultimate carbon footprint of food. This is not the case in most of the food value chains. Besides the transportation of food, which contributes 6% of emissions, the major contributors of GHG emissions are livestock and fisheries (31%), crop production (27%), land use (24%), and supply chains overall (18%).  

Therefore, the type of food  we eat is far more important than where it has travelled from.  

Research from Poore and Nemecek (2018) looking at how 29 different food items (ranging from animal-based to plant-based) generate GHG emissions demonstrates that animal-based meals (beef, lamb, and cheese) have a larger carbon footprint than plant-based ones (bananas, apples, citrus fruit and nuts, the lowest). 

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, pay attention to what you consume. 

By Dr Quynh Do Nhu and Dr Anas Iftikhar