food supply chain

BI, Analytics & Reporting

- 4 min read

How many miles does your food travel?

Over the last 20 years, the distance your food travels have significantly increased. When you consider the intricate Supply Chain routes that grocery retailers, restaurants, consumer packaged goods, and other related food & beverage industries put in place to get the best value on their products, food can travel across oceans and continents. This blog explores the reasons and implications of the global food Supply Chain network. 

Why does our food travel so far? 

Food travels further for three main reasons: 

  1. we prefer and buy seasonal food all year round (a current trend) 
  2. we buy more processed food nowadays 
  3. cost is essential, as we like to pay as little for it as possible. 

When talking about the miles food travels, it typically refers to the distance from the location it grows to the point of consumption, meaning the distance from farm to plate. 

How much transport is food? 

Over a quarter of all road vehicle freight is food. The number of food miles on the roads has exponentially increased. But why is this, are consumers to blame?  

In some ways, yes. Consumers will drive their cars further to do their shopping – particularly in larger countries – with many making regular trips to large, out-of-town supermarkets for the best value and deals. In fact, the average distance there and back for a regular shopping trip can be around 135 miles.  

This puts extra demand on the retailers to ensure that they are meeting the demand from “out-of-towners”, while also maintaining the best and most competitive prices to keep the same level of consumers coming back.  

How does the distance food travels affect producers and consumers? 

Consumer expectations have changed. Eating oranges in winter means bringing them from overseas, so they must be imported. Experts calculate that almost 95% of fruit and 50% of vegetables in many countries are imported, brought in from warmer climates to meet changing and growing customer demands. 

Consumers expect quality, freshness, adequate nutrition, minimal variation, and longer shelf-life while keeping the costs of this product as low as possible. Live animal transportation is a challenging issue too, with matters of animal welfare and global health considerations to contemplate.  

Customers want to buy food that is fair value, and this kind of food requires first-class logistics to bring food from farms to stores. Top food companies are experts in delivering fresh food fast. They count on highly efficient processing systems with standardized processes, buying most of their ingredients from local or regional markets where possible but often having to source globally to service the customer needs.  

Ready-made foods, such as pizza and crips, require processing. A blend of automation and manual labor is necessary to meet the incredibly high volume of demand these products meet. Ingredients for processed foods can travel around the country, from factory to factory, before they make their way to packaging and shipping to the supermarkets. Even something seemingly as simple as a prepared salad can travel significant distances for processing and packing. 

The competition for cheaper labor costs is vital. Additionally, the challenge of today’s highly fluctuating fuel costs has put the logistics and importance of transportation very much in the spotlight. Consider this – a farmer who raises poultry for a supermarket chain in their country must weigh up several steps to get their chicken from the farm to the shelves. This includes: 

  • Transporting the carcass to another country, where butchery labor costs are much lower 
  • Transporting the prepared carcass to a packaging factory (potentially in another country) 
  • Transporting the packaged product to the supermarket in the source country, to be sold. 

It’s amazing how far a locally sourced chicken has traveled before it can be purchased and consumed!  

In most circumstances, the farther your food travels, the less nourishing and tasty it is at the point of consumption. This has obvious circumstances for suppliers and can have a significant impact on the final price consumers will pay. It is impossible to tell how far food has traveled and by which means, beyond reading the food’s country of origin on the label. Intelligent consumers are now paying attention to local for local, with farmers’ markets having a policy of selling food within a limited location is becoming more popular. 

What are the environmental implications of a global food Supply Chain? 

We must consider the distance and means of transportation, and what environmental impacts Supply Chain routes will have. For example, a long journey by boat has less environmental impact than a shorter one by road. The amount of food transported by plane has doubled and is forecasted to escalate even more in the coming years. However, air freight is costly financially and environmentally. Which method is the most efficient while also being fiscally and environmentally responsible? 

As long-distance, large-scale transportation of food consumes large quantities of fossil fuels and generates increased carbon dioxide emissions, large food suppliers must pay attention to the coherence between their corporate strategy and the Supply Chain plan. Satisfying the demand for fresh food while minimizing environmental impact is quickly becoming imperative. How effectively can this be done at the commercial level while establishing a decreasing reliance on the more polluting means of transportation?   

The possibility of a further carbon tax on CO2 could diminish food miles and make the food processing industry think carefully about their transport needs. Governments could aim to reduce food miles, cut costs, and lower road congestion. There needs to be a more robust alliance for better food and farming policies, such as supporting initiatives to buy locally and introducing local food into markets, schools and communities.  

Sustainability in the current food Supply Chain  

Farmers currently cut unripe fruit and then gas control the ripening stage, helping to keep their produce fresh while transporting it long distances. Food is highly processed in factories using preservatives, irradiation, and other means to keep it secure for transport and sale. Genetic modification is also a common practice to create longer-lasting food. Rebuilding a local food system means starting with what is fresh, regional, and seasonal – buying organic food helps organic farming cut down on the fossil fuels used to produce and transport the chemicals used in more conventional agriculture.  

The model of food miles also involves waste, which must travel from your house to a landfill site. The average domestic household throws away are more than 3kg of food and 14kg of food packaging every week. Purchasing food with reduced packaging can reduce the packaging issue, but then the risk of compromised shelf-life increases 

Sustainability must be part of the food lifecycle; an alliance between developing local food economies and decreasing the distance that food travels is gaining momentum at various levels. Cooking fresh, seasonal food purchased the same day from neighboring farmers’ markets is seeing an increase in popularity. However, is this enough of a trend to stop supermarkets and wholesalers from continuing their food Supply Chains?   

Introducing an intelligent Supply Chain tool 

Understanding the impact of everything explored above is critical for food suppliers and the businesses involved in the process. For example: 

  • How visible are their sourcing strategies?  
  • How are their environmental, social, and governance policies aligned and monitored?  
  • Are they on track for achieving carbon-neutral goals (whatever and whenever they might be)? 
  • Are their Supply Chain plans intelligent and integrated enough to ensure profits are maintained, environmental impact minimized, and consumer expectations satisfied? 

The tools for monitoring the miles your products travel are already here, driving Supply Chains effectively with the insight and intelligence necessitated by a complex industry. 

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