Helen Dickinson on retail: Buying food is now a moral dilemma

At any one time, I like to think that I have a pretty good grasp on the themes and trends doing the rounds of retail businesses. However, there is one at the moment that I can't quite get my head around.

I'm talking about food miles, the term that refers to how far your food has travelled before it reaches your plate.

Supporters of food miles campaigns state that the elements of a person's dinner could travel thousands of miles to make it to the plate - leaving a trail of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions in their wake.

Their belief is that by sourcing and purchasing food much closer to home, the personal food miles tally of consumers, would be slashed, thus helping the environment.

My interest in this was sparked by reading about the recently created Fair Food Foundation, an organisation keen to promote the issue of food provenance among retailers and the general public.

Its first campaign, called 'What's on your plate?', aims to highlight food outlets that disclose information about the products they sell, such as where the ingredients are from and how they reached the establishment, before you place your order.

A worthy campaign, but is there is an element of green vs green here? One lobby tells us we should be ethical consumers, supporting Fairtrade farmers in Africa, for example. Another tells us we should not fly tonnes of produce in from distant lands because we are hurting the environment.

Then there are the practicalities - how far do you take this issue? If everyone in your neighbourhood, for example, bought only locally sourced produce from the local store, that store would run out of stock, and local farmers would not be able to keep up with demand.

Obviously that is an extreme example, and the point of these campaigns is that they raise awareness and can produce a slight change in behaviour. All things in moderation, I suppose. So what happens is that you buy Fairtrade coffee, but offset those food miles by insisting on buying only local vegetables from your high-street grocer.

With that sort of trade-off though, just how much of an impact can each individual make? The interesting point for me is there are plenty of other ways of making a difference, but they do not have the same media currency as some of these campaigns. For example, you may support the idea of only purchasing produce from a shop that displays its local-sourcing credentials. But how do you collect that produce? By driving several miles in your family estate car, just to make a few supplementary purchases?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), believes the average consumer travels 136 miles each year to shop for food. I'm assuming that means an average household of two adults and two kids can therefore be held accountable for more than 500 miles worth of car emissions, just in this particular quest.

Defra also states that 25% of HGV mileage in the UK is accounted for by food haulage. We now transport double the quantity of food by road than in 1974. It is taken from farmer to distribution centre to supermarket, then we drive to collect it. You can see how the miles rack up.

Still, at least it is not travelling by air, although having said that, less than 1% of our total food miles is attributable to this method of transport.

Confused? Join the club. I think the key point is for all consumers to look closer to home and figure out how they can make a difference.

With that in mind, a good starting point would actually be our homes - the UK's housing stock is among the most energy inefficient in Europe. But that campaign does not have half as much cachet right now as locally sourced lamb and excessive road miles.

- Helen Dickinson is head of retail at KPMG


- The Fair Food Foundation (FFF) is a non-profit organisation committed to encouraging consumers and food outlets to consider the provenance of the food they eat and serve.

- It aims to link food outlets with local communities, raise awareness of food production, restore trust in food and celebrate the diversity of UK cuisine.

- The five key principles of its What's on your plate? campaign are for eating establishments to disclose the source of food on menus; support British and artisan producers; offer seasonal and regional specialities; avoid unnecessary food miles by buying locally; and train staff to be aware of special diets.

- The campaign will highlight establishments that adopt its guidelines and disclose information about the provenance and ingredients of the food they sell.

- The FFF intends to promote the brand to food outlets, suppliers and other interested parties as a potential selling point for consumers.

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