Food for Thought | Carbon footprints in perishables: more than just food miles
When it comes to food, today’s discerning consumers want both fresher products and a reduction of their environmental impact (a noble cause). Because of this, the popularity of locally grown and produced food has reached new heights in recent years.
However, the conversation around food transportation and supply chain can be misleading. The concept of food miles, or how the distance a product travels from field to fork impacts its carbon footprint, is more complex than it seems.
Raw mileage is a highly subjective variable for determining carbon footprints. It is important, of course, as is the mode of transportation, with ships being more efficient than trains, trucks, and airplanes, in that order.
But there’s a lot more to it, starting with why each of these may be chosen. Perishables such as fish, asparagus, and berries, are often flown. Bananas, tomatoes, apples, and pears are instead transported by ship because they can be harvested before ripening and kept in storage longer.
In many cases, foods produced overseas have lower carbon footprints because production is far more carbon-intensive than transportation. Overall, the carbon cost of transportation is slight compared to the carbon costs of production.
For example, local meat production in northern latitudes is more carbon-intensive because the animals must be housed in heated facilities during the winter. Something similar happens with tomatoes grown in a local greenhouse.
Food miles shouldn’t be seen in isolation
Other important factors such as food loss and waste should be considered, especially as this is something we all can be better at as individuals. Food loss and waste (FLW) represents the misuse of labor, water, energy, land and other natural resources that go into food production.
Logistics and transportation companies get a lot of flak for FLW, but from its two elements, only food loss refers to what is lost in the supply chain from production to the market. A box of blueberries crushed in transit because of improper packaging is considered food loss. Food waste refers to the discarding or alternative use of food that is good for human consumption, for example when “ugly food” or food near the best-before date is discarded by retailers or consumers.
While food loss can occur during handling, storage, packing or transportation, it may also result from pre-harvest problems, such as pest infestations, and during harvesting.
Food that is harvested but not consumed generates about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions per year. An estimated 1/3 of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste.
Producing enough food while limiting our impact on the environment is one of the biggest challenges of our time, and moving that food and doing so sustainably is another. (Photo by @klimkin on Pixabay)
With so many moving pieces, smart supply chain management is essential. New technologies and innovative approaches are readily available to improve efficiencies and reduce unnecessary expenses for all stakeholders.
At Panalpina we take sustainability very seriously and strive to minimise food loss to the fullest extent with state-of-the-art cold chain management, among other processes and applications.
Better FLW management for an economically viable and sustainable future
According to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), market value of FLW lost in North America alone is US$278 billion.
The financial incentives for companies to tackle FLW include the advantage of using all the raw materials bought, which results in higher yields and profitability. It also means lower disposal costs.
There are many more opportunities to develop initiatives for proper FLW management in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, from suppliers to producers, carriers, institutions, and, of course, the consumers, whose FLW cuts into the affordability of nutritious diets and alters the cost perception of perishables that are subject to high rates of waste (learn more in Further with Food).
Next time you think of food miles, remember that all of the resources that contribute to putting food on the table––and not only what pertains to logistics and transportation—are wasted when food goes uneaten, including the land, water, labor, capital, chemicals, and energy used.
Also, keep in mind that the further in the supply chain the waste occurs, the larger the carbon footprint!
We all can and should do more to have more sustainable supply chains for better FLW management.