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Overview - Food supply Issues

Carbon footprints, ‘food miles’ travelled, local sourcing of food and the trend towards agribusiness

Key words

Agribusiness - Application of business skills to agriculture.

Carbon footprint - A measurement of all the greenhouse gases we individually produce, through burning fossil fuels for electricity, transport etc. expressed as tonnes (or kg) of carbon-dioxide equivalent.

Food miles -The distance covered supplying food to consumers


Organic produce


There has been an increasing demand for Organic produce in the UK too.  Organic farming does not include the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and involves the production of animals, fruit and vegetables.

The Soil Association certifies 70% of the UK's £1.95bn (2016) organic food sector and sales grew by 4.9%.    Organic farming is a much more sustainable method, in that it reduces the intensification of food production and encourages a more local approach.  Artificial fertilisers are banned and farmers develop fertile soil by rotating crops and using compost, manure and clover. Strict regulations, known as ‘standards’, define what organic farmers can and cannot do – and place a strong emphasis on the protection of wildlife and the environment;

• Pests are controlled using natural predators
• Crops are rotated so that farmers can maintain the fertility of their fields
• Animals are farmed in lower numbers and without the use of growth hormones and antibiotics
• Weeds are controlled either by hand or machines rather than by spraying chemicals on them.

Carbon footprints, ‘food miles’ and local sourcing of food

Food miles are a basic way of showing how far our food travels to get to us.  The amount of food miles is increasing for each family in the UK.  The increase in food miles poses significant problems to the environment because of the energy required to transport the food.  This is becoming increasingly important as increasing quantities of our food are now being air-freighted, the worst type of transport for air pollution.  The number of food miles also varies per food type, and we import 89% of our fruit.  We also transport food stuffs that can be grown here in the UK, including potatoes. This is surprising, and according to the British Potato Council, the UK imports 350,000 tonnes of potatoes a year, and that includes during potato season.  Kenya benefits massively (24% of GDP and 50% of export earnings come from agriculture) from its export of chillies, sugar snaps, green beans, flowers and baby corn, but is it environmentally ethical and socially ethical (in a food shortage country) to do so?

Food miles therefore contribute to the carbon footprint of our food.  The transport types used output huge quantities of greenhouse gasses such as Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxides.  However, transport is only part of the carbon footprint of our food and this has a direct impact on our environment.  Other items produce carbon dioxide, including packaging, especially plastic packaging, the retail spaces that sell our food (in the form of their electricity use, heating, refrigeration etc.), agricultural production of carbon, food use etc. 

There are alternatives to eating imported food;
1. Try growing some of your own on an allotment
2. Eat only seasonal produce, grown in the UK
3. Look for the Red Tractor food standards label which assures that your food is British
4. Use local farmer’s markets and try to eat locally grown food, this will support your local famers and the local economy

The trend towards agribusiness

In the UK we used to have a lot of small farms run by families.  This has changed.  Most of our farms are now agribusinesses.  Agribusiness involves the application of business skills to agriculture or food production. This means that farms are run as big businesses which attempts to increase food production by using lots of inputs such as fertilisers or labour saving machines.  These farms have increased food production by;

• Increasing in size by buying up smaller farms
• Increasing in size by removing hedgerows and draining wetlands
• Producing one crop or animal in monocultures in big quantities
• Applying huge amounts of chemicals in the form of fertilisers and pesticides
• Applying the best technology such as a combined harvester or using better seeds
• Using modern production methods

These big businesses have come to dominate the food markets in the UK.  This is because they have vertical integration allowing them to produce the food and get it to markets easily – “from farm to fork”.  The big food processing companies will often buy food before it is planted and can put huge pressure on farmers over the appearance, quality and quantity of food produced.  The positives of agribusiness include more food security and cheaper prices for consumers.  However, many farmers have been forced out of business and the big companies can be seen to have too much power over the market price of goods.  There are also negative consequences for the environment from this type of farming. In east Anglia, farm sizes have increased considerably over the past 40 years because of this type of farming.

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