Monday, February 22, 2010

Food miles or fair miles

I wish to thank Martin for the opportunity to be guest blogger here again, following a few entries from me in the past (mostly Africa and sustainable tourism related). I wish to this time revisit the slightly related topic of food miles and share a recent report of Oxfam and IIED called "Fair miles - recharting the food miles debate" that focuses on African fruit and vegetable exports to the UK.

As the world continues to grapple with climate change, the “buying local” and “food miles” concepts are intuitively appealing, but especially in colder climates (where it is most popular) it is flawed and simplistic based on a false assumption that transport is the only or major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. This ignores the complexity of the food chain from the seed to the plate. Among the more obvious examples is the energy-intensive industrial-scale cultivation in greenhouses having far more environmental impacts than the African low carbon small-scale producer (with a lot of help from the sun).

Some interesting extracts from the report:

"A tomato grown in Essex in the UK is not necessarily more environmentally friendly... if that Essex tomato needed energy-intense greenhouse cultivation to survive. There are, too, other environmental impacts, such as fertiliser use and soil degradation" (p.9)

"Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) — a UK initiative studying greenhouse gas emissions from the food system — led a recent lifecycle analysis of these emissions in the UK. It suggests that transport accounts for about 10 percent of the food system’s emissions." (p.16)

In contrast:

"Agriculture is a top contributor... according to DEFRA, for 36 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food consumption in the UK" (p.18).

Even "shopping, storage and preparation" (p.27) accounts for more than transport.

"The vast majority of UK farms derive inputs from outside the UK, and consequently are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions that occur outside their locality as well as outside the UK. For many foods, this poses serious questions about their ‘local’ credibility" (p.14)

"To begin to fully understand the social and environmental effects of our food choices, we need to take a look at the entire food supply chain — from farm to manufacturer, to wholesaler or distributor, to retailer, to individual — and the energy use, emissions, and livelihood opportunities associated with each step of that convoluted journey" (p 13)

To really drive home the message that we need to be more holistic than counting the “food miles”, the livelihood dimension is added as final element in the last quote above. The report concludes:

"Kenyans contribute very little to the global emissions burden. And what is more, the entire airfreight trade in fruits and vegetables between the UK and Kenya adds a mere 0.1 per cent to the UK’s total emissions. Given the industrialised world’s historical responsibility for emissions, and its current high per capita emissions, is reducing its carbon footprint from 10.60 to 10.59 tonnes really worth imperilling 1 to 1.5 million livelihoods?" (p.33)

This trade-off is the kind of question that environmental economists need to explore further. Are we in a real inevitable trade-off situation, or is there even a way of minimizing carbon emmisions from African agriculture for export without affecting livelihoods?

Some related articles on this topic from Times online, Prospect magazine and a UK government report from DEFRA and DFID. (Guest blog contribution by Gerhard Buttner: Development and Ecotourism Consultant - South Africa, Mexico and the UK)

No comments: