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Food miles: green good sense, ill-considered hype, or naked protectionism?

A few years ago, as Alex Steffen (founder of Worldchanging.com, where I serve as chairman of the board of directors) and I were getting to know each other, we both attended the Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. One of the speakers had circulated yellow and green plastic cards to the audience, and asked us to vote on various propositions by holding up one card or another. The questions were meant to be divisive and ethically difficult. One asked whether we thought it was justifiable to introduce Nile Perch into Lake Victoria, likely unbalancing the ecosystem, but providing much-needed protein for local fishermen. I put up a yellow card to indicate that I thought it was justifiable and caught Alex looking at me, green card in his hand. We raised eyebrows at one another and went on to the next question.

There are a lot of situations where environmentalists and sustainable development advocates see eye to eye. We can both get psyched about small-scale solar and wind power, about farming techniques that use less chemical fertilizer, about Dr. Amy Smith’s amazing research on charcoal alternatives.

And then there are issues where we’re just not going to see eye to eye, like the hundred mile diet. James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith decided to spend a year eating only food grown within a hundred miles of their Vancouver, BC home as a way of calling attention to the environmental costs of the typical North American diet. The diet – and the related concept of “food miles” – has become very trendy within the environmental movement. A quick glance on Worldchanging turned up several articles, including an eat local contest, an Iowa State University study on the economic impact of transporting food, and a meditation on local food and national security.

There’s lots of good reasons to seek out local food: it often tastes better, is fresher, forces you to meet your neighbors and gives you an insight into what foods do and don’t grow in your region. (I’m a proud member of our local organic farm, which is one of the pioneers in the CSA movement.) But measuring the environmental impact of a foodstuff based on how many miles it travelled is misleading at best. There’s impact from fertilizer, pesticides, packaging and machinery, as well as the energy expended in actually cooking the food, which can be a major component of the energy cost of a plate of food. A university study in New Zealand, which understandably wants to downplay the environmental impact of shipping lamb from the South Pacific to the UK, argues that farming in NZ is so efficient in comparison to the EU that producing agricultural goods in NZ and shipping them thousands of miles created fewer emissions than producing them in the EU.

NZ’s ag minister, Jim Anderton, makes the argument that “food miles” aren’t really about environmentalism:

“The concept of food miles is both flawed and too often promoted by those motivated by self-serving objectives rather than genuine environmental concerns,” Jim Anderton said. “It is being used in Europe by self interested parties trying to justify protectionism in another guise.”

Which brings me to the article that got me thinking about food miles today, a story by Victoria Averill for the BBC. Averill talks to Kenyan farmers who’ve made the change from growing food for local export to food for global export. 65% of the agricultural produce grown in Kenya is designated for export, half of it to supermarkets in the UK. Economic advisors have been pushing rural farmers to plant “high value” crops for decades – growing flowers for export puts much more money in a farmer’s pocket than growing maize to sell to his neighbors. And Kenya’s pursued this course very aggresively, to the point where horticulture is the second largest industry in the country after tourism.

So the announcement by British supermarket chain Tesco that they’re going to start putting a “carbon count” on their packaging is making Kenyan farmers very nervous. Kenyan food – which is widely sold in Tesco – will now be designated with an airplane on its packaging. And since Tesco is committed to reducing the percent of food that’s flow in from 2-3% to 1%, Kenyan farmers won’t be able to sell as much produce to UK stores.

A Kenyan farmer who Averill interviews points out that his personal carbon footprint as an agricultural producer is a lot lighter than that of his UK consumers:

He points to the simple gravitational water irrigation system that flows through his smallholding, admitting he has never been in a plane, rarely travels by bus and uses nothing but his hands to grow, fertilise and harvest his top quality green beans, which then appear on a supermarket shelf in Europe.

Situations like this leave African farmers feeling helpless and cheated. Kenyan farmers followed well-meaning international advice, and many have benefitted from increased revenue from growing high value crops. But if that international market dries up, they’re producing crops that there’s no local market for – a move like this could leave tens of thousands of farmers without a livelihood, at least until they can retool their crop mix.

Certainly it’s admirable that Tesco wants to limit its environmental impact. Lots of the changes they’re proposing for lighting and heating their stores and for making their distribution system more efficient are excellent ones. But limiting agriculture from Africa isn’t likely to have a major environmental impact – one study suggests that a complete boycott on air-freight produce from Africa would reduce UK emissions less than 0.1%. And it’s certainly going to raise questions about whether a move like the one Tesco is proposing is about environmentalism, protectionism, or simple ill-considered hype.

10 thoughts on “Food miles: green good sense, ill-considered hype, or naked protectionism?”

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  2. This is an editorial of The Daily Nation’ the largest media house in East and Central Africa…in todays edition (25/2/07).

    Buying Kenyan roses good for the environment

    Moves by some British consumers to boycott Kenyan fresh produce has more to do with protectionism than with a genuine concern for the environment.

    The concept that this latest hysteria is based on — the food mile — is an unscientific measure of pollution, given respectability by the British government. It looks at the number of miles a product has travelled from the farm to the UK, the further, the “worse”.

    The British government is solidly behind this philosopher-stone concept and is even planning a special food miles tax, according to some newspaper reports.

    THERE ARE THREE DIMENSIONS to this new crisis facing our country. First, is the science, or lack of it. Planes, such as the ones we use to fly fresh produce to Europe, pollute the environment. So do the trucks they use to move flowers from the Netherlands to the UK, or something else from Hungary.

    But you can’t apportion pollution blame to a product based on its mode of transportation only. You will need to examine how it is produced, processed, packaged, stored and so on.

    European agriculture heats its green houses. The energy used to heat these green houses is generated, in some cases, from the burning of fossil fuels. Secondly, relatively more artificial fertilisers are put in the soil in Europe, than in Africa for example, where we are more likely to use organic manure.

    Chances are that European products are uncompetitive not just in price, but also in the energy consumed (and therefore pollution generated) in their production. If British shoppers want to eat green, the science will most likely direct them to Kenyan fresh produce.

    The second dimension, and related to the foregoing, is what a British leader referred to as “food patriotism”. British agriculture has been on the decline, with negative consequences for rural economies. There has been a campaign in the UK for consumers to buy local food to support local jobs. In that sense, the food miles campaign is akin to the agricultural subsidies paid to European and other rich world farmers.

    Its purpose is to keep uncompetitive producers in business for domestic, political, economic and other reasons.

    The European Union, Japan and the United States of America play this kind of game all the time. The only industry where Africa has a chance to compete in the world market is agriculture. By using every trick to keep Africa out of their markets, these countries are sealing the continent’s coffin.

    The final dimension has to do with the loaded dice that is the international economy. For poor countries, it never rains; it pours. The rich countries became so by trading; they have become richer because of a system that removes barriers to trade, therefore enabling them to sell more to the world.

    INTERESTINGLY, EVEN AS THEY have preached to the rest of the world to open their markets, rich countries have not seen the need to do the same to their own markets. When they do not spend money to distort markets, they have an arsenal of sophisticated mechanisms — consumer agitation must rank among them — which keep their markets secure from the bulk of the exports from poor countries.

    They are in the happy circumstances of being able to sell to the world but not necessarily to buy from it in the same proportion. This — rather than any special ability — is what in large measure accounts for the widening wealth gap between the rich and the poor.

    The rich world uses copious amounts of English these days explaining and trying to justify the unsustainable injustice of the international economic and political order.

    LOCALLY, THE HORTICULTURAL export sector is one of the few truly successful segments of the Kenyan economy. Its destruction by this food miles campaign would do unspeakable damage to the nation. The loss of income in already impoverished rural neighbourhoods would be an unimaginable setback. Sadly, the UK is the dominant market for flowers and horticultural produce and the industry may pay a very high price for putting all its faith in the British.

    All human beings have a stake in protecting the earth. It is the responsibility of the rich, as well as the poor, to take care of the environment to protect the survival of our species. Poor countries, however, have an additional responsibility: To generate the wealth they need to protect their independence and provide their people with an acceptable quality of life.

    The rich countries, recently joined by China, are the world’s worst polluters. And they are not anxious to take steps to redress this because they fear damaging their own economies. Poor countries such as Kenya rank very low in the league of polluters. Yet they might have to suffer an inordinate amount of economic damage and shoulder a proportionately heavier burden in the environment business.

    THE ENVIRONMENT, IN THIS sense, becomes yet another dimension of global inequality.

    If the British consumer is interested in genuinely protecting the environment, then they should demand information on the carbon yield in the totality of producing and transporting a commodity. Once such data is available, producers can then be required to either save energy or take measures to remove carbon dioxide in quantities equal to the ones they emitted in producing and taking their products to the market.

    That way, an increasing amount of products can be rendered carbon neutral. Agitating against Kenyan products will not make the food the British eat carbon neutral, it will not protect the environment, it will merely destroy the Kenyan economy.

    If sense does not prevail and the food mile becomes the new basis for deciding what to consume, then Kenyan unions, farmers’ organisations and consumer groups would have every justification to mobilise local consumers to afford British products similar treatment.

  3. True. It’s not easy but if we don’t buy local food in a big way we will have little world left in the not too distant future. Local food is sustainable. Growing green beans and flying them to the UK is not unfortunately.

  4. And here I was arguing with you about the cost of importing garlic from China — no wonder you weren’t impressed!

    In all seriousness, you ask good questions and make a point worth arguing about. You also make me wonder whether EU farmers could make themselves greener and remain competitive, and how American farmers, on the rocky coast or in the fertile heartland, compare.

    And you reinforce my admiration for New Zealand’s international, ecological and environmental long-sightedness. Friends who recently visited told me that New Zealand farmers receive nearly no subsidies and have therefore had to reinvent their farming practices regularly in order to stay competitive.

    They appreciate the difficulty of the question too. The first discussion of the benefits of eating locally I ever read came from a British woman who had learned the theory — on a New Zealand farm.

  5. An excellent post raising excellent points. I would say that the ‘food mile’ concept is a perfect storm of UK governmental back-door protectionism and middle class smugness.
    If we’re going to look at ‘greening up’ the food industry, the first place to look is the intensive agricultural practices of those countries rich enough to cope with the impact of changing those policies. Looking at flower or snow pea imports from Kenya, where, God forbid, farmers might get some cash flow coming in and saying (1) oh no the transport is polluting, we must buy from local polluters instead, and (2) oh no the transport is polluting, obviously we must stop buying from these non-polluting farmers who really need the cash and have no control over transport, rather than address problems with jet engine technology, is just lazy and immoral.

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