Please take a journey with me. I am the humble potato, and I probably travel more than you. To show up at your table, dressed in my finest spices, I may make an epic journey that may cost the planet. First, I must be grown in the ground where potatoes thrive. Once I’m pulled up from the ground, I’m sorted from rocks in a big machine. Then, I travel to the warehouse for processing. My journey now involves traversing along a long conveyer belt to the storage room. After I hang out with my other potato friends for a bit, I am washed, sorted, and packaged in a nice bag, ready to send to the store. How I get to the store is sometimes the longest part of the journey – travelling across the country or even to a new country! Finally, when you and your family decide they want potatoes for dinner, someone drives to the store, picks me off the shelf, and goes back to your house, where I’m prepared and cooked with love.
I hope you enjoyed our journey (and our dinner) together.
The light-hearted journey of the potato was the only way I could get through the discussion of our food production and its impact on climate change. The reality of farming, food preparation, storing, and transport around the globe can be equally overwhelming as it is essential to discuss. After all, we only have one planet and almost 8 billion people who need to eat.
The big question—where does my food come from—has become a pervasive one. It pushes through every time I open my fridge door and makes me eerily aware that my choices haven’t reflected the planet I would like for my son.
We, as consumers, have been sheltered from the reality of food production since very few of us own gardens or farms on our own. We don’t see the vast quantities of pesticides and insecticides that are sprayed onto our food impacting the soil quality. We don’t notice the enormous amount of water pumped for crop irrigation, especially during water shortages. We don’t look twice at the trucks rumbling down our highways, the petrol they guzzle, or the cargo holds of aeroplanes stuffed with exotic foods.
While the issue is very complex, there is one conclusion that I can make: we all must do our little part. For me, it as simple as becoming aware of how far my food has travelled from the farms to my fork.
It’s easy to overlook our responsibility in this climate change problem. When countries and businesses start weighing and debating their responsibility in the equation, it is easy, as an individual, to fade into the background and let the powers that be take the lead. However, just as we can control what goes into our bodies for our health, we can have some control over the food production narrative based on what we buy.
As a consumer, a vital action you can take is to vote for food that travels less to get to your table. Foods that travel fewer miles are categorised as having low food miles. The Oxford Languages dictionary describes it as “a mile over which a food item is transported during the journey from producer to consumer, as a unit of measurement of the fuel used to transport it.”
Choosing foods that are low in food miles doesn’t mean that you compromise on the nutritional quality of your diet. I’ll be so bold to say that no one needs superfoods from a place halfway around the globe—there are superfoods and highly nutritious foods available at our local grocers. I understand that it isn’t easy to tell how many miles your food may have travelled, especially when it may not be apparent whether your potatoes are coming from Uttar Pradesh or Sweden. It’s not written on the package.
However, we may be able to discern the distance by simply looking at our food choices. Our food hitches a ride on three primary forms of transportation: road transport, ship, or air cargo. According to Hannah Ritchie from Our World in Data, very little of our food is transported by air. When it is, though, it leaves a huge environmental impact. Ritchie tells us that highly perishable, out-of-season foods (which only last a few days on the shelf) are typically flown by aeroplane.
Fancy some fresh berries in the winter? They likely took a flight to get to your table. According to an article, , The Facts About Food Miles, on BBC Good Food, produce transported by aeroplane has 10 times more carbon emissions than those transported by road and 50 times those sent by ship. It, therefore, makes sense to start asking questions about our food choices to determine if they are in season, and if not, where on earth must they come from to sate our cravings?
There are some obvious solutions to the problem—not choosing out-of-season, highly perishable food items, and supporting local farmers. You’ll find their produce at markets or in stores down your street. If this isn’t accessible to you, there are great subscription services that will send you food from a farmer based on seasonal availability. Some of these farm-to-fork deliveries will also include recipe cards to discover and try new foods that you typically wouldn’t incorporate into your diet.
If you think your small food purchases won’t impact the bigger picture, I urge you to think again. Think of your food purchases as a vote towards a better future and planet. The more you vote toward sustainable food production and fewer food miles, the fewer times you vote for highly produced and long-haul transportation of the food that impacts our environment the most. Food companies will have to take notice when their bottom line is affected by people who care about the planet.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach