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What's air-freighted and how much does it affect the environment?

Food miles is a relatively new concept, but one that is growing in importance. In short, it’s a measure of the distance your food is transported to reach your kitchen. Most food products, even seasonal ones, are available year-round today.

This means they will have to be transported long distances, often by air, which will contribute to CO2 emissions. Food miles is a tool, for the environmentally aware consumer to make better food choices with the environment in mind.

How to calculate a Food footprint

To calculate your food footprint is rather simple, really.

You need to know how far your food has travelled from the farm to you. Multiply this by weight and the CO2 load for transportation and you get the total carbon dioxide emissions. Then you can start comparing.

For example, 1 kg of Argentinian beef, flown from Buenos Aires to Stockholm will travel approximately 12500 km and cause 6.3 kg of CO2 emissions.

If instead, the beef is produced locally the food mileage may be less than 100 km and it will be transported by lorry, causing much lower emissions.
Image of food

Types of food that's air-freighted

A lot of food is both air-freighted and produced locally, depending on the time of year and your location.
Here is a list of some food items that are commonly air-freighted, but there will be exceptions, so you should always ask or check the label to be sure:
  • Asparagus
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Fresh tuna
  • Unusual and exotic fruit
  • Fresh lobster
  • Fresh beef
  • Fresh lamb
  • Avocados

Is asparagus sustainable?

Asparagus is grown locally, all over Europe and is available during the spring. For the rest of the year, it has to be imported, by air-freight, commonly from Peru, with food miles stacking up.

Locally grown asparagus is sustainable, but it is a seasonal delicacy and should be treated as such. The food mileage for asparagus from Peru is in excess of 11000 km when imported to Europe.

Are sugar snap peas sustainable?

Sugar snaps are produced all over large parts of Europe and you can find fresh, locally produced peas during the summer.

In wintertime, you’ll have to look in the freezer or buy them imported by air-freight from Africa or, even worse, South America, with a huge food mileage penalty.

Are fresh berries sustainable?

Fresh berries are grown in Europe every spring and summer and you should get them while they’re available. It is a great food product, but it’s also seasonable.

In winter you can still get them with a low food mileage if you buy them frozen.

Is beef sustainable?

Avoiding the general discussion of the sustainability of beef, for the sake of discussing food mileage, when it comes to beef the food mileage is completely up to you.

There is beef with a low food mileage available throughout the year in most locations, but it is also being imported from all over the world.

You can eat beef whenever you want, but you’ll have to look at the label to ensure it hasn’t been flown from the other side of the planet.

Is fresh lobster sustainable?

Fresh lobster is a rare delicacy. At least it used to be. Nowadays it’s readily available, often imported by air-freight from North America.

If you want fresh lobster that is sustainable, be on the lookout for the locally produced stock.

Is fresh tuna sustainable?

No. If it’s fresh, tuna will have been air-freighted to Europe and it will invariably have a high food mileage. If you accept it frozen, the situation is a bit different. The mileage is still high but being frozen it will certainly be imported by sea, at a much lower CO2 cost.

Summary

Food miles is one additional tool for the environmentally aware consumer, striving to make informed choices about what to eat and what to avoid. The amount and selection of eco-friendly food products are steadily increasing, which makes it easier to make good choices.

Unfortunately, many of these products come with high food mileage, something that makes them harmful to the environment, and not so eco-friendly after all. For the environmentally aware consumer, finding eco-friendly food can be a bit of a struggle, when food mileage is taken into account, but there may be solutions to be found by looking back in time.

In the old days, before modern air and sea transportation became abundant, people used to adapt their eating habits to local conditions and seasonal changes. This way of eating needs to be reintroduced.

You can still eat food from all over the world, but if you want to reduce your food mileage, you cannot expect to eat anything you like, every day, regardless of the time of year.

You need to make a choice. Food miles help you make it an informed an intelligent one.