Food miles: The 150 km that aren’t

There seems to be an oft-quoted and generally accepted rule of thumb that the vast majority of what we eat in Indian cities comes from within a radius of 150km.  Given popular perception about the inefficiency of Indian agricultural supply chains, this seemed rather believable at first.

So in April, when I visited a govt. wholesale mandi in UP, I was surprised to find that every single lemon consumed in the district of Lucknow (and another nearby district as well) had apparently travelled all the way from Chennai.  Every trader selling lemons repeated the same story — the lemon trucks had come from Chennai. That’s a journey of 2000 km!

Even lowly dhania (coriander) had come from Gwalior on tops of buses.

Govt. wholesale mandi (APMC) in Lucknow

Govt. wholesale mandi (APMC) in Lucknow

In an effort to find recent data on food miles in India, I dug around and found a recent food miles study that calculated the average food miles for five vegetables.

They found that typically in the unorganized sector, vegetables (tomatoes, eggplants, okra) travel 160-220km on average, while onions travel 410km and potatoes a whopping 1530km.

So much for the 150km rule of thumb!

I have repeatedly found that most of the commonly accepted rules of thumb about agriculture are actually wrong. That is why I have found it very useful to pour through research papers, talk with people working in the field and see things first-hand, before taking any such ‘facts’ at face value.

As long as we are on the topic of food miles, here’s another interesting piece of data from the same research paper.  Modern organized sector retail supermarkets are developing hub and spoke logistics models (e.g. Spencers and More Supermarkets) or vertically integrated supply-chains with direct procurement from farms and farmer associates (e.g. Reliance Fresh). These models bring reliability and convenience to the customer, and overall efficiency in the fooch supply chain. However, in an effort to offer popular seasonal vegetables year-round, they source them from farther locations, almost doubling the average food miles!

 

Unorganized sector

Hub and Spoke models

Vertically integrated

Potatoes

1531

2250

2865

Onions

406

570

765

Tomatoes

161

230

375

Eggplant

216

400

410

Okra

216

400

365

[Source: “Business Models of Vegetable Retailers in India”, by Paulrajan Rajkumar and Fatima Jacob, Anna University, Chennai, March 2010]

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8 Responses to Food miles: The 150 km that aren’t

  1. Saurabh Lahoti says:

    Really interesting read. What also would good know is whether higher food miles is good for society in general or not? evaluation from various aspects: quality of vegetables, income to farmers and cost to end users etc.

  2. Richa says:

    Saurabh,

    I would imagine that there may not be a simple answer to this.

    A lot of the arguments in favor of local food have to do with a) freshness, b) supporting local economy, and c) environmental footprint. The freshness argument assumes that the local food has not been sitting in some local warehouse or truck before it gets to my plate. But the real answer would depend on the time since harvest rather than the miles the food has travelled or not.

    Secondly, in terms of supporting local farmers: if the food item I want (say, lemons) is not available in the local market, then what? Or, I could argue why must I support only local farmers and not farmers elsewhere, especially if they are growing what I need. So again the answer doesn’t seem so straightforward to me.

    Also, it may be more efficient (due to climate, soil, etc.) to grow some produce in other parts of the country/ world. So how do we weigh the overall efficiency in our equation? From an environmental footprint perspective I would ask whether it is better to grow food in a local unsuitable location (with more inputs) or ship it halfway across the world or simply not eat that food item?

    These are just some initial thoughts; I haven’t thought enough about this question to have a definitive opinion. A friend recommended a book called “The Locavore’s Dilemma”. I have not read it yet, but if you are interested in this topic, you could pick it up.

  3. Sanjay Nayak says:

    Richa, does the food wastage factor remain the same or is it more for ‘Hub and Spoke’ or ‘Vertically integrated’ outlets? I never find fresh vegetables at Reliance Fresh or Big Bazaar but find them relatively better at big malls. Sad that we do not improve logistics and put vegetables faster into the hands of the consumer.

    • Richa says:

      Sanjay,

      There are no reliable statistics on wastage, but the people I have spoken to give numbers like 2-5% at each intermediary, depending on type of produce. So if a produce involves 4 hand-offs, which is fairly typical, you get 10-20% wastage by volume. However this doesn’t capture the full extent of wastage. Because there is also “wastage” in terms of value of produce. The less fresh the produce, the lower the price you can charge. Estimates along those lines calculate wastage to be around 40% for fruits and vegetables.

      Richa

  4. Fantastic post, I really look forward to updates from you.

  5. Melli says:

    I wonder whether fact that the ‘150km rule’ is not true is a relatively recent phenomenon, that is in the last 10-20 years. When I was growing up fruits and vegetables were only available in season, and tasted and looked different even between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. And some available in one region were not available in another. I have certainly heard from relatives in the food business about how supply has changed in recent years. The history of how vegetables and fruit came to our plates is probably not directly relevant to your research, but might be useful to study efficiency and other aspects in food distribution.

    • Richa says:

      Hi Melli,

      I’m sure you are right about this being a recent phenomenon and that’s why the 150km rule is no longer valid. Perhaps I should look at the history of food distribution patterns. Another mini-project for my to do list!

      Thanks,
      Richa

  6. Kalyan says:

    Really interesting post. Thanks for the same; particularly the stats are interesting. Regarding the wastage comment, I only wish people wasted less once it reaches their home/plate/restaurant. Seems like that has increased a lot too (gut feel more than anything). I remember reading about a restaurant in NY where they charge you for the waste you leave behind – something we should consider adopting as well possibly.

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