‘Freshly clicked’. The advertisement on the back of the Tesco delivery truck promised efficiency, convenience and fresh produce delivered to right outside my door. Sounds great, right? Online shopping has saved people time for years now, bar the occasional “Oh no, I tried to order 1kg of apples but I accidentally just ordered 1 apple instead” (true story).
The play on the common phrase ‘freshly picked’ shows just how far we have come from a tangible relationship with the harvest we consume. Food can be ordered online and delivered to our door the next day with contact between farmer and consumer non-existent. It is not surprising, then, in a situation where the food we eat is so divorced from any knowledge of the soil in which it was grown, that the food system has grown ever more international and complex.
Knowledge of the impact of food miles on greenhouse gas emissions, and an understanding that consuming local food encourages local farmers which in turn builds resilience against any coming shocks to the international food system, is certainly increasing. The rise in interest in, and success of, local food shops, farmers’ markets, community gardens, and veg box schemes demonstrates this – albeit confined primarily to a particular social demographic. However, progress remains limited: in 2015, the UK imported £9.1 billion worth of vegetables and fruit, and only exported £1 billion worth. That’s a pretty large trade deficit.
Supermarkets continue to dominate the grocery sector in the UK, which means cheap and unseasonal produce remains the name of the game. Consumers have become used to food availability that simply is not possible without huge levels of international imports to get around the fact that the UK climate does not produce all the food all year round. Eating seasonally is inconvenient for us, now, and not just a necessary way of life as it used to be.
One October morning, in prime UK harvest season, I decided to see how many different countries I could order fruit and vegetables from on the Tesco online delivery website, and how many I could find in store. In the local Tesco Express, I wrote down the origins of those fruit and vegetables that had countries of origin labelled (some, such as pre-packaged stir fry vegetables, and loose avocados, contained no such information). I found country-of-origin information on 29 different fruits and vegetables. Number of countries apparently needed to stock the shelves of this small supermarket? 11. To put this into perspective, the shop down the road only sells produce from Yorkshire and it often has a similar number of varieties. I partake in a veg box scheme which is primarily Sheffield-grown produce and regularly get over ten different kinds of vegetables.
To give Tesco its due, 13 of the 29 fruits and vegetables were from the UK. However, in harvest season, less than half of fresh food coming from within the UK doesn’t really seem that impressive. Needing 11 countries to produce 29 vegetables seems a bit much. But it gets worse.
The most baffling part of the food miles issue isn’t so much the importation of food. Especially in regards to fruit, it is easy to see why, for example, papayas are imported. Some things just don’t grow well in the UK, and we have become accustomed to eating exotic produce, so supermarkets, to please their customers, will stock it. And some international produce is not as environmentally damaging as you may first assume – bananas, freighted by boat, for example are relatively low on the emissions scale. Food miles alone is a reductive way of looking at the climate impact of agriculture and diet.
However, some things do seem bizarre. For example, British whole broccolis were readily available when I visited this Tesco store. Also on offer, though, were broccoli heads. From Kenya. Two questions immediately sprang to mind: firstly, if we can stock British broccoli, why on earth are we importing it from Kenya? And secondly, what has happened to the rest of the broccoli that produced the pre-cut florets?
Things became much more striking when I went home and investigated the online shopping market. I decided to fill my virtual shopping cart with all the fresh fruit and vegetables available on the Tesco website. That is, all that had country of origin information – again, this was missing on numerous items. Here is the resulting map of my shopping cart. 56 countries were involved. The map below shows where the food in your ‘Freshly clicked’ delivery comes from – click on the pins to discover which produce comes from where.
The information above points not so much to a big reveal about the environmental impact of the international fruit and vegetable trade. Emissions and sustainability are far more complicated than that. What it does, however, demonstrate, is our reliance on the international economy to produce cheap and easy food all year round, without any regards to seasonality or country of origin. It demonstrates a reliance on a capitalist trade system that keeps farmers across the world in poverty, contributes to deforestation to fuel our dietary preferences, and pays little regard to the long term resilience of the UK’s food stocks. It creates a complacency about the availability of food and the existence of a food surplus which is simply a lie. If the international trade system were to collapse tomorrow, and supermarkets to stop stocking imported goods that had previously been staples (not as farfetched as you might think – think of the Tesco Marmite controversy following the Brexit vote), we would fast be on the way to a food crisis in the United Kingdom. Building resilience against the coming shocks of climate change involves building our food system to be more local, more sustainable, and above all better supported by both businesses and policy makers. There is no need to rely on 56 countries to supply your weekly groceries.