It is perhaps unfair to compare seasoned environmentalists with Charles Dickens' miserable character Scrooge, yet both seem reluctant to enjoy Christmas. While the star of A Christmas Carol insists that anyone with Merry Christmas on their lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart, pressure group Sustain is arguing that before any of us tuck into a traditional Christmas meal next December we should stop and think carefully about how we are harming the environment. Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, points out that the ingredients in the typical traditional Christmas dinner, if bought at a supermarket, could have travelled more than 24,000 miles. But if we choose seasonal produce and buy items locally at farmers' markets instead, the total distance would probably be less than 400 miles. Sustain is not crying "humbug" as such, but it is highlighting a serious issue about the distances food is transported around the world and the carbon dioxide emissions this generates. The topic of food miles has risen up the environmental and retail agenda following the publication of Sir Don Curry's Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food report which urges efficiency savings in the supply chain, while supermarkets insist they are committed to more local sourcing. The Sustain report, entitled Eating Oil: Food Supply in a Changing Climate, claims that airfreight of food has expanded significantly and that food transported by road has risen by more than 50% since 1978. It says that between a third and 40% of all UK road freight is food related and warns that the oil supplies which fuel the food system could be exhausted by 2040. It cites a number of examples where the import of fresh produce is not energy efficient. For every calorie of carrots flown in from South Africa, 66 calories of fuel are used; while in terms of energy consumption, flying a kilogramme of strawberries to the UK from California is equivalent to operating a 100W light bulb continuously for eight days. Bringing a kilogram of food almost 19,000km by plane from New Zealand apparently emits the same level of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle 268 times. Sustain also highlights the loss of nutrients, the risk of spreading diseases, such as foot and mouth, and poor animal welfare in distant markets as sound reasons for reducing food miles. The organisation's policy director Vicky Hird says: "We began looking at the issue of food miles in 1994 and, at that time, the supermarkets did not have any policies in place that acknowledged climate change or the harm to the environment caused by the transport of food over long distances. Smaller British producers are suffering from the current category management techniques employed by the multiples which means often only a handful of suppliers are used." Another survey carried out in the south east of England by the pressure group last summer focusing on imported organic food which could have been sourced locally, discovered onions transported from New Zealand, spring onions from Mexico (9,000km), green beans from Egypt (3,500km) and potatoes from Italy (2,000km). The bleak environmental picture painted by Sustain begs the question ­ why do supermarkets, which are responsible, respected and hugely successful businesses, still feel the urge to transport lettuces from Los Angeles or runner beans from Thailand at a time when the British farming industry is in dire straits? The average farmer earned only £5,200 for the financial year to February 2001 when total income from farming fell 27% in real terms to £1.88bn, a decline of more than two thirds in five years, according to the National Farmers' Union. Of course, the reasons why the supermarkets continue to source abroad while promising extra local agreements are more complex than the environmentalists would like consumers to believe. The price paid to suppliers at source will always be a compelling factor. But the chains also require reassurances that the volumes they need can be serviced all year around, that suppliers are reliable and that shoppers are offered the choice they demand. In a society where travel is extensive, consumers expect the different foods and ingredients they taste around the world to be available in their local store. Perhaps most importantly, the current economies of scale and centralised distribution systems operated by the multiples make dealing with small-scale producers and direct deliveries to stores by farmers difficult without significant changes to the whole logistics process. Sainsbury's trading director Ian Merton says the company is aware of the need to reduce food miles and it has added 3,000 British lines to its lists in the past two years. Sainsbury began labelling British produce with the national flag in September and says this has prompted a 36% sales rise in these particular lines. The company also relaunched its Partnership Schemes with British farmers in February following the Curry report and has announced a boost to its Partnership in Livestock initiative, first with lamb and beef farmers and later with pork producers. One of the reasons meat food miles have risen has been the decline in the number of local abattoirs ­ around two-thirds have closed since 1991, according to a survey by environmental health experts published last year ­ on top of consumer concerns raised by BSE and foot and mouth disease. "We want to reduce miles overall, not only for environmental reasons but to drive down our own costs, but any changes we introduce must be right for the business. We have explained to local producers the negatives of having lots of different suppliers arriving at our stores during the day, for instance. The increase in the number of vans this would bring would certainly not be good for the environment," says Merton. He adds: "We try to buy British wherever we can and I am sure consumers would be concerned if they saw green beans from Kenya on sale during the British growing season. It is our policy to show shoppers where goods were sourced so they can make up their own mind and the price they pay will always relate to the quality of the product ­ wherever it comes from." Merton points out that buying more produce from local farms can create specific administrative and logistical difficulties because some products will only be popular in one or two or its stores. He quotes the example of Speldhurst Sausages produced on a local farm in a Kent village and a huge favourite in the nearest large town stores in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, but a poor seller elsewhere. Meanwhile, rival Tesco has responded to calls to reduce food miles by opening regional buying offices in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where two full-time staff in each have been told to build closer relationships with producers and buy locally if it is appropriate. The chain stocks 7,000 locally sourced products and in 2000 claimed that 68% of its shoppers like to know they are supporting local farmers when they visit its stores. Meanwhile, Safeway's communications director Kevin Hawkins rigorously defends supermarkets' record on food sourcing and blames the short UK growing season as the main reason why so much fresh produce is imported. The company is in the process of replying to the Curry report and is confident it will soon be able to announce changes in its fresh food supply chain in line with its stated aim to expand its organic offer and increase its range of locally-produced lines. The subject of how to reduce organic food miles was discussed in January at a meeting of the Organic Targets Campaign which is urging the government to adopt an organic action plan and set a target of 30% agricultural land to be organic by 2010 to reduce a reliance on imported organic produce. "The supermarkets would always buy from British suppliers if it made business and environmental sense to do so because purchasing from producers so far away makes traceability harder and means it is more difficult to monitor quality control," says Hawkins. "Yet there is no widespread evidence among consumers that they are overly concerned about where their food comes from." The environmentalists however, insist there is growing consumer demand for more local sourcing, demonstrated by the increase in the number of successful farmers' markets. Yet they accept many shoppers are still unaware of how many miles or kilometres the contents of their shopping basket might have travelled. There are calls for better labelling by manufacturers and retailers to show shoppers the distances involved and the transport-related environmental impact of getting goods from source to the store. One idea is to use on-pack logos such as an aircraft or a lorry to indicate how goods were moved over the longest part of their journey with the distance travelled printed alongside. The market for fruit and vegetables is usually highlighted whenever the debate about food miles gets heated, and the supermarkets have again come under fire for shunning British apples and pears, this time from Friends of the Earth (FoE). FoE claims that in a survey of 130 stores last autumn, Tesco and Safeway came bottom of the list with half of Tesco's organic apples coming from outside the EU while three-quarters of Safeway's apples and pears were imported. Waitrose, which was taking part in a British Fruit Festival promotion during the survey period, was the only chain sourcing more of its produce from the UK than abroad, at 71%. Sandra Bell, real food campaigner at FoE, blames the multiples for the disappearance of many varieties of British apple and pears and the demise of more than half the country's orchards since 1970. "This trend is bad news for the growers, especially as last year was a bumper British harvest for apples. The main reason the supermarkets import so much is price, but local varieties can be more resistant to pests and disease, which means less use of pesticides and therefore less environmental damage," she says. John Breach, chairman of the British Independent Fruit Growers Association, agrees the supermarkets have made it increasingly difficult for his members to supply them. "We would like to see a return to more local sourcing of fruit, and growers need assurance they will be able to sell their produce, otherwise they will grub up their orchards. We need much more support from the grocers," he says. The FoE claims food manufacturers are now bringing in apples from as far afield as China to use in juicing and that British producers must sell quality British apples at below production cost to compete. Up to now the manufacturers have kept out of the heat in the dispute over food miles, but they are now coming under attack for sourcing too many ingredients from overseas. The Food and Drink Federation points out that many of the ingredients its members use in processed foods are not available in Britain or are purchased as commodities on the international markets. Spokeswoman Jackie Dowthwaite says those arguing for less importing must remember that British producers export £9bn worth of food each year. "We are likely to see more manufacturers siting their factories close to where they source their key ingredients," she says. "Where this happens the local farmers become big players in their own markets while their families often work in the factories." The reality of just how committed retailers and manufacturers are to changing their buying policies to help British farmers is unlikely to become obvious for some time. European strategy consultants Roland Berger advises the multiples on category portfolio and purchasing strategy, and associate partner Gerald Corbae argues that, in reality, the supermarkets will never voluntarily switch wholeheartedly to local sourcing because they view it as an indirect subsidy for British farmers. "We all must understand the food market is European, and in many instances global, and the big chains cannot deal with the complexities of dealing with a large number of local suppliers," he says. "The question also has to be asked that if customers at one particular supermarket branch do not like the taste of a British tomato, for instance, and prefer the taste of an Italian one, should that store be compelled to stock the home grown variety if the demand is not there?" Not surprisingly farmers do not see a broad-based policy to promote local sourcing as an indirect subsidy. Instead they regard it as a trend that consumers will welcome and which will ultimately reduce the price of many items. The National Farmers' Union's senior marketing advisor, Stuart Thomson, says the NFU has had a number of meetings with the major retailers in the last 18 months to discuss the subject and he has given a cautious welcome to the news that the supermarkets are keen to set up more local depots. "The main problem is that our members and the retailers usually have different definitions of what is actually meant by local sourcing. Tesco is a global company now with stores around the world, so does it mean sourcing in the country of origin, by county or from within a 20-mile radius of a store?" says Thomson. Britain's leading farmer, the Co-operative Group, which manages 90,000 acres serving its 1,100 stores, says supporting local sourcing and reducing food miles is central to its commitment to support the communities where it trades. It operates a network of regional distribution centres to support local initiatives, is recruiting a local sourcing manager and will hold more regional Meet The Buyer events this year to make contact with potential suppliers. All of its Scottish fresh meat is from Scotland while local bakers are encouraged to supply its stores. Finding a balance between the need to support British farmers and reduce the threat to the environment from transporting food such long distances and the protection of consumer choice is a challenge producers, retailers and green campaigners say they are all prepared to face up to. If they manage to achieve it, all parties will be in the mood to celebrate ­ whether it is Christmas or not. n {{COVER FEATURE }}