Twenty years ago, the thought of popping down to your local supermarket to buy avocados in December would’ve seemed close to madness. Walk into shops today, however, and buying food is a breeze. You can buy almost any ingredient you want — whether it’s spring, summer or autumn — and the same goes for restaurant suppliers.
Peruvian asparagus, Bolivian blueberries, Argentine steak. We’re so used to seeing these ingredients on restaurant menus that trying to survive without them when they’re out of season in the UK would seem like living in a circle of hell.
As chefs, being able to source foodstuff whenever we want has obvious advantages. We can source meat, fruit and vegetables all year round, giving us the flexibility and security to create consistent menus.
On the other hand, paying customers are increasingly conscious of their carbon footprint — especially when deciding which food to order. Food miles are playing an increasingly important role in the journey from farm to fork.
But where exactly does the concept of food miles come from? Is reducing food miles actually environmentally friendly? And should the restaurant industry take more notice? Read on to find out more…
The history of food miles
The concept of food miles is a relatively new phenomenon. It refers, as you might expect, to the distance travelled of transported food from across the globe to its place on a dinner plate.
Dating back to a 1994 report called ‘The Food Miles Report: The dangers of long-distance food transport, (or from a phrase coined by food policy professor Tim Lang, depending on who you speak to), it’s a relatively simple idea that almost anyone can grasp.
Reducing the miles that food has to travel makes clear and obvious sense from an environmental perspective. If blueberries for your cheesecake have been air freighted halfway across the globe, they’re going to have racked up a fair chunk of carbon emissions. And that’s without factoring in the lorries needed to transport them once they’ve landed.Tasty blueberry cheesecake? Yes, absolutely. Tasty greenhouse gas emissions? No thank you.
For the increasingly ethical consumer, the carbon cost of the food leaves a sour taste in their mouth. As a result, many restaurants have reacted to trends by including more local food on their menus. You can read more about it here.
Are food miles a fad?
How many times over the past twenty years have we heard scare stories in the media? Steaks give us cancer. Pastries make us fat. Chickens give us pox. OK, at least some of the information we consume is true. But what about food miles?
There are some that say that food miles aren’t the biggest problem when it comes to creating more sustainable menus. As a real-world example, it is more sustainable to grow tomatoes in Spain and transport them to the UK, than it is to grow them in a UK greenhouse, at least according to the ETA.
But though there are some exceptions, on the whole, food miles make up a significant part of the ecological impact of the food you serve on your menu. Whilst there’s some talk amongst politicians and campaigners about taxes on food miles, it’s not something we need to think about right now, especially as we have such little influence on policy.
However, there are some aspects we as chefs can do which to have an impact on reducing food miles. Particularly those that can be attributed to our menus.
How can chefs make a difference?
Though talk of emissions can leave many of us feeling fed up, it’s not that tough to make menus with reduced food miles. Put simply, we need to create more seasonal menus.
This might not be the most attractive proposition for a stressed chef just trying to get through yet another busy weekend. But creating menus in line with seasonal produce can make a big impact in reducing the carbon footprint of the food produced in your kitchen.
It can also make your food zing. Buying fresh, local produce will leave your customers hungry for more. And the element of surprise at regularly arriving to a new menu can make every visit fresh and exciting.
What about if I work in a specialist restaurant?
Of course, not every foodstuff can be sourced locally. Food miles will, for some chefs, be unavoidable.
If you’re a sous chef in a South American grill, for example, you’re going to struggle to please customers arriving for the real thing, especially if you’re offering up liver and turnips. Likewise, you’re going to struggle to source Colombian-standard coffee beans grown in Loughborough or Liverpool for your trendy cafe-bar.
But almost all of us working in this industry can actively source more local, seasonal fruit and vegetables. In many cases, we’ll still need to buy ingredients that aren’t sourced in the UK at some point. But the more we start to source from local farmers and suppliers, the better chance we have of reducing the food miles of our menu.