Feeding the hungry city

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Article Published 29 Jun 2016 Last modified 11 May 2021
5 min read
Ingredients for the meals we eat at home or in restaurants come from near and afar. In an increasingly urbanised and globalised world, the food produced in the countryside needs to be transported to the city. Much focus has been put on reducing ‘food miles’, which can be a relevant but sometimes limited concept. A smarter and cleaner transport system would solve only part of the issue. A wider systemic analysis of the entire food system is in order.

Even if we live on a farm, most of the food we eat needs to be transported in one way or another. As three in four Europeans live in cities, the supply of food is highly dependent on transport, which is currently heavily reliant on burning fossil fuels. This of course has negative impacts on the environment and the climate.

Globally, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and, according to the United Nations, this share is projected to increase to about two-thirds — more than six billion people — by 2050. Many of these urbanites are projected to be in the growing and relatively affluent middle class, so the demand for transporting all kinds of food to cater both to our needs and tastes is likely to increase.

Distance travelled doesn’t tell much about the journey

Transporting food, people and goods has many environmental impacts, including air pollution, noise, landscape fragmentation and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Concern for these impacts has led to the concept of ‘food miles’, which usually means the distance the food has travelled to reach homes, supermarkets or restaurants.

Calculating ‘food miles’ can, in some cases, be a useful way to estimate your meal’s environmental impacts. But it also has a number of important limitations: only a part of the environmental impacts related to food come from its transport. In terms of GHG emissions, how the food is produced (e.g. in heated greenhouses or in open fields in its growing season) is usually much more important than the distance transported. In fact, most of the environmental impacts of what we eat are linked to the production phase, which involves cutting down forests for agricultural use, irrigation, using chemical fertilisers, feeding animals and so on.

Looking just at food miles not only ignores the way the food was produced, but also the type of food we are buying. Going vegetarian or simply reducing meat consumption, switching type of meat and cutting food waste might cut your food-related GHG footprint by a quarter.

Moreover, food miles typically look at the journey from the point of production to the supermarket or restaurant. However, transporting large quantities of food from one point to another can actually be highly efficient. Your own choice of transport mode — by foot, bicycle, car or bus — to the supermarket and back home may be much more important when estimating your meal’s environmental impact.

Determining who sells what

Food miles are probably of minor concern compared to how food is brought to consumers. There is no single, common food supply chain at European level. In recent years, logistics providers have been trying to form alliances and provide services across Europe. Despite this trend, cost pressures faced by pan-European logistics providers mean that many rely on subcontracting small operators. As a result, a significant share of road freight is still subcontracted to, and transported by, a myriad of small enterprises and driver-owners.

At the same time, according to a study by the European Commission, food retail has become more concentrated in the EU because of the penetration of supermarket chains, hypermarkets and discounters with a centralised distribution system involving modern logistics. In other words, fewer players are operating in food retail. This has resulted in more efficient logistics and cost savings, but has arguably affected the selection of food items available to consumers and made it harder for smaller producers to enter wider distribution systems.

These centralised logistics systems can also be subject to failures, leaving supermarkets and consumers vulnerable to disruptions in food supply. For example, fuel protests in the United Kingdom in 2000 led supermarkets in some cases to ration food until supply lines were re-established.

Basing our food system on large-scale transport also has implications on the type of food we eat. As food needs to stay fresh — or at least edible — during and after transport, much fresh produce has to be plucked raw, and for many types of food using conservatives becomes a necessity.

Age of the pizza drone?

Online grocery shopping is growing rapidly in Europe and this may mean a major transformation of how food reaches consumers. However, it’s not very clear if this would be good or bad for the environment.

According to a study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology on shopping for electronics, clothing and toys, online shopping was the most environmentally friendly option. There were two main reasons for this: the buyer’s journey to the store was avoided and maintaining a retailer website generates significantly fewer emissions (and uses less energy) than a physical retail store. However, if you already live next to a grocery store, the calculation may provide different results. Several factors can be at play: How close is the nearest grocery shop? Do you walk, bike or drive there? Are you buying food for an entire week or just for one meal?

Another question is how our shopping habits keep up with changes in transport technology. Self-driving electric trucks and pizza-delivery drones may become a reality much sooner than we think. In long-haul transportation, more efficient container ships possibly slow steam ships coupled with sails — could change the game.

Similarly, our diets might change in favour of vegetarian choices. Or our protein need might be largely met by aquaculture or insects. In terms of logistics, it would also be much easier to transport highly nutritious, concentrated powders or pills, but these dry solutions might not match the image most of us have of a delicious dinner, not yet at least.

Other innovative solutions, such as growing food in cities, for example on vertical farms and rooftops, can both reduce the transport need and also help cities to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Looking at Europe’s food system

The EU 7th Environment Action Programme sets an ambitious goal of ‘living well, within the limits of our planet’. It also identifies both food and mobility, together with housing, as key sectors where the overall life-cycle environmental impact of consumption should be reduced. Together, these sectors are responsible for almost 80 % of the environmental impacts of consumption.

Tackling food waste, which amounts to some 179 kg for an average EU citizen per year, seems like a good place to start as it should also reduce the need for food transport. However, to tackle unsustainable consumption, we need to address the entire food system, including production, consumption and governance.

This understanding has been at the heart of recent assessments by the EEA, including the ‘Greening the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP)’ paper and the agriculture briefing in the ‘European environment — state and outlook 2015’ report (SOER 2015). Systemic analyses address food in a wider sustainability context, linking it not only to its current environmental impacts, but also to issues such as food security in a globalised world, growing demand for food linked to global population growth, raising income levels, impacts of climate change on food production, changing diets with obesity on the one hand and malnutrition on the other.


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