The High Cost of the Food Superhighway

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag


Have you noticed the extraordinary reversal of interest in the media in recent months? Growing your own food in a natural, organic way and involving the community has become big news. Television crews are being sent to profile community supported agriculture programs, newspaper columns are being written about the need for more allotment growing spaces and politicians are proclaiming that we should eat more local seasonal produce. What is particularly amazing about this is that in any other culture and time all these things would never be considered newsworthy. Only in our crazy modern food system has growing your own food become the exception rather than the rule.

This state of affairs was highlighted very well by a recent BBC documentary ‘Crop to Shop: Jimmy’s Supermarket Secrets’. The presenter, Jimmy Doherty, is well known in the UK as a rare-breed pig farmer featured in a fly-on-the-wall documentary series that followed the trials and tribulations of his farm as he tried to convince the British public to buy locally-farmed organic pork. In the documentary he presents a very ‘balanced’ view of the issues surrounding the production and transportation of out-of-season products for our supermarkets across the world. For someone who is such a strong advocate of local produce, coming face-to-face with the super-farming methods that supermarkets rely on was fascinating to watch and revealed some startling statistics.

For example, to get new potatoes into British supermarkets in winter we import them from Egypt. Not that surprising - after all they are going to need warmth and sunlight to grow. But here’s the incredible process:

  1. Seed potatoes grown in Scotland are exported to Egypt
  2. The potatoes are often grown in desert sand, fed by huge sprinkler systems. Because the sand contains no nutrients, fertilizer must be mixed into the water that is sprayed onto them.
  3. Water is a scarce resource in the desert so they drill down over 350m below ground level to a huge water system under the Sahara, which will never be replenished. It takes a staggering 500 litres (880 pints) of water to produce just 1kg of potatoes (2.2lb).
  4. To protect the potatoes on their journey to the supermarket and to retain moisture they are packed with peat – which is bought in from Ireland!
  5. The potatoes then make a huge journey over 2 weeks by specially refrigerated container truck and ship to reach the supermarkets in the UK.

Non-Renewable Resources

Have you noticed how many non-renewable resources are being used in this process?

  • Oil: The seed potatoes, peat and finished product travel an astounding 11,500 miles round trip (equivalent to almost half way around the earth), all fuelled by oil.
  • Fertiliser: Largely derived from oil, vast quantities of fertilizer are required to feed crops grown in sand.
  • Water: In a country where pure water is incredibly scarce it is being sprayed onto crops in the heat of the sun in a desert!
  • Peat: Despite the company claiming that the peat comes from a renewable source, it takes so many thousands of years to renew peat (one of the best ‘sinks’ of greenhouse gases we have) that this can hardly be considered environmentally sound.
Huge amounts of water, fertilizer and energy are needed to produce crops in the desert

Many other examples were also profiled by Jimmy Doherty:

  • 165 million packets of beans flown in from Kenya per year.
  • Peppers grown in vast greenhouses in the Netherlands that require their own gas-fired generators to maintain warmth and light through winter.
  • Fruit from countries like Ghana which is air-freighted because, even with sophisticated packaging, it needs to be on the grocery store shelves in just 48 hours.

The Real Story

This is the story that should be hitting the headlines: an unbelievable reality distortion, caused by the combination of market forces and cheap oil. The inefficiencies are mind-boggling, especially when you consider that many of these crops can be grown and stored for months in the UK, or are part of our natural seasonal variation in harvest. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not arguing for an end to imported food because I understand the need for a variety of fresh produce in winter, high-tech ways of preserving produce and the value of export crops to workers in Africa. However, market forces have led to something else: an environmental nightmare with 25% of our carbon emissions due to food transport alone.

The food superhighway is utterly amazing but it is not ethically neutral, as is clear from the recently released film Food, Inc. We have become so used to its vast wastage and crazy use of non-renewable resources that we have become immune to the real issues and now think growing your own food is amazing, inspirational and progressive. Imagine trying to describe this to someone living at the turn of the last century – they would declare our civilization mad!

I’m glad that the media now feature community land-share groups and food cooperatives as news-worthy. However, they need to become more than just ‘oddities’ that are slightly quaint and become a real alternative to the crazy excesses of the supermarket system. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if supermarkets would start to invest in local food production the way they have built the vast infrastructure of the food superhighway? My hope is that the resurgence in home vegetable gardening and demand for organic produce might just be the catalyst we need to start building truly sustainable food systems for the future.

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Show Comments


"I read in a magazine last night that families in Australia throw out 20% of purchased food. Given how much food we throw out, it didn't shock me, but it was a reality check to read the statistic in black and white and not be shocked. I have a multitude of books on vegetable gardening and no vegetable garden. That is about to change. I have two young boys (one 3 and a half and one 7 months) and rather than use the excuse of being too busy caring for them to garden I want to include them in caring for our vegetable garden. I have a lot to learn and I am looking forward to learning alongside my boys. I don't want to buy tasteless fruit and vegetables and end up throwing most of it out, certainly not if its production in the first place was as complicated and resource depleting as some of the examples in your article. As a parent I want to teach my boys to cherish and nurture their world and I am learning the best way to do that is by example! I am so excited to have found this website and I am certain the 'trial' will become an ongoing subscription. Three cheers for three pairs of gumboots in the garden (or at least two pairs until bub is walking!)."
Gumbootsx3 on Saturday 13 February 2010
"Hi Gumbootsx3, Great to hear that you will be getting your children involved in growing their own food. My children have really enjoyed having their own sections of our garden and being part of growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables from it. If you haven't already seen it, we have an interesting article on Gardening with Children in our GrowGuides section."
Jeremy Dore on Saturday 13 February 2010
"Our nutrition has developed over millennia to take advantage of the food as it becomes available through the year, so we acquire the full complement of vitamins and minerals. Therefore we should not be 'afraid' to learn to enjoy vegetables in season as opposed to the clinically-clean and homogeneous food we see today in supermarkets. That said, progress is inevitable, and so there's a lot to be said for the gardening techniques our Medieval ancestors used; the clamping and storage of summer's root crops to see us through winter. My first efforts at this has been poor, but I have learned what I did wrong and I will be trying again as I have planned for a 25% surplus stock from my garden this year. Food mileage and Carbon-offsetting/reduction are only the bonuses to the real aim of reducing my bills and getting to a simpler, healthier and more rewarding way of life. Plus a workout in the garden beats the Gym any day!"
Kevin Hannan on Monday 15 February 2010
"With record snowfalls in our east coast and not enough snow out here in the west this winter, I'll be trying every method I can to make the most of what little water my garden gets this year."
Clarice McKenney on Friday 19 February 2010
"i work for an oil company and think it great for my companys short term share price movements that we do abuse our dwindling natural resources in this manner. Yours, R. Rouser"
R on Thursday 7 July 2011

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