Monday, April 23, 2007

food miles

Over at World Changing, this article attacks the concept of reducing food miles for environmental benefit. I posted a thing in the Comments but as it's a blurry issue for a lot of us, I thought I'd expand on it over here too.

World Changing's assault is clumsily argued, saying how the 'concept of food miles has become very trendy within the environmental movement'; as if people committed to acting responsibly were doing so for reasons of fashion rather than any more intelligent or honourable reason.

Apparently shipping New Zealand lamb to Europe is environmentally responsible according to, oh, New Zealand's Agricultural Minister.

Even if New Zealand lamb were so much less carbon intensive because of their farming methods, isn't that an argument for matching their farming methods rather than shipping their meat over here?

Another source cited is this BBC Green Room article.

our research suggests that when considering UK grown potatoes, 48% of all energy used during the potato's life cycle is expended in the kitchen

It's a fair point, but it is an additional consideration rather than one that refutes food miles. Would it be better if we expended more energy per potato just so the percentage used in the kitchen was less?

As if to prove the slantedness of the piece, the next paragraph says

Boiling potatoes is horrendously energy intensive, and this simple act dwarfs the energy consumed during their production and transport.

Even ignoring the fact that the heat from a cooker means your central heating works less hard, since when was 52% dwarfed by 48%?

Citing such sloppy sources, you just know where it's all going. Still, what of the charge that '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.

That doesn't mean that considering food miles is 'misleading'. It just means it isn't the only consideration. The same apple brought a long distance is undeniably more carbon intensive than if it were brought a short distance.

Certainly, packaging and the staggeringly fossil-intensive agrichemicals are an issue, but eating local organic stuff where you get the raw ingredient ticks most of the boxes.

But what about the jobs of people who presently supply us from overseas?

Kenyan farmers who’ve made the change from growing food for local export to food for global export... Economic advisers have been pushing rural farmers to plant “high value” crops for decades

Which economic advisers are they talking about, I wonder? Can we trust them to have the interests of poor farmers at heart? Can anyone say 'IMF'?

Whatever, yes, doing food for export puts more money in the hands of some Kenyan farmers. But why is money the measure for their wealth and welfare?

Much of the 'people who live on $1 a day' stuff ignores that some of the people we're talking about are subsistence farmers who are keeping and swapping seed and don't need to enter into the financial economy to be healthy and well fed.

Letting their agricultural traditions wither in exchange for growing luxury crops for export has made them dependent on Western consumer habits. Whether those habits are dictated by fashion or environmental necessities, it's globalisation that's screwed them, not fashion, nor eco-friendliness.

The demand for 'high value' crops is largely a demand for high-water crops. A bag of salad in the supermarket costing 99p takes around 50 litres of Kenyan water. It's an environmental disaster that is depriving people on surrounding lands of the ability to grow food to feed themselves.

Climate change is already here; increased sea temperatures are moving rainfall in Ethiopia so lands are drying up and people are being starved off. How can we justify exacerbating that in the name of giving Kenyan farmers more money?

There is certainly more to carbon cost than distance - a UK government survey found that Kenyan roses flown to the UK were less carbon intensive than ones shipped over from an electrically lit and heated Dutch greenhouse.

But that's not an argument to buy Kenyan. It's an argument to buy neither Kenyan nor Dutch flowers and limit such serious carbon emissions to things a tad more essential. It's an argument to cut many carbon intensive practices instead of just aviation.

it's an argument to cut many aspects of our consumption as well as - not instead of - our food miles.


Danny said...

Hi Merrick - as a full-time carbon-counter I feel the need to heartily agree. Food miles shouldn't be considered in isolation, but that doesn't mean that they suddenly don't matter.

Thought you might also like to know that the 2006 New Zealand study that claims that producing lamb in NZ and then shipping it over here is the most low-carbon option has been roundly criticised by carbon footprint researchers as it doesn't include two fundamental things: refrigeration and packaging. When transporting perishable food over long distances, these two factors have an enormous impact (depending on how the refrigeration electricity is generated I've found it can be more significant than the transport fuel), and yet both are mysteriously absent from the NZ study.

Anyway. Bit pedantic, but thought you might be interested. Jolly well keep it up and all that.

D x

Anonymous said...


I thought that you might like to read my paper on 'The negative development impacts of a "food miles" approach to agriculture'

Find it here:



Anonymous said...

One last thing.

If you really want to cut your emissions in relation to the agricultural produce that you eat, the main recommendation I would have is to eat less meat and other animal products. As the FAO recently found:

"According to a new report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation."

Eating less meat and animal products would far outstrip emissions reductions from cutting air miles, which are a marginal contribution to total carbon emissions.

Other recommendations would be:

* Consume less
* Eat less processed food
* Cycle to the supermarket/market
* Cook less - eat more food raw!

Trade is vital in our global economy. As I ask in my paper, 'Will more and more dependence on international markets be needed as local and regional climatic shocks increase with climate change?'

If the gulf stream slows or shuts down, or if growing agricultural produce becomes impossible in certain parts of the world, then we will need to trade more than ever.

There is a knee-jerk reaction going on within the Green movement to relocalise everything. Please read my paper mentioned in the last comment and think about the potential consequences of such an action.

If you have any questions, please just contact me through my website.



merrick said...

Hi Ed,

thanks a lot for the link to your paper, it's really interesting.

Having read it, I'll put a detailed response on your site.

Broadly, we're seeing the same thing; food miles is a useful concept, but by no means the whole story.

And you're dead right about animal produce (I've got a blogpost pending about the UN FAO report) - not just for the colossal greenhouse gas emissions but for the vast wild land that goes under the plough to provide grazing and fodder production.

Veggies and vegans need a lot less land to keep them fed, so if we want the trees to stay up we should stop buying the beef and dairy that encourages Amazon forest to become ranches and fodder soya monocultures.

Thing is, it's not a food miles vs agrichemicals vs animal products thing as I see it. We should be cutting back on them all if we really want to see a safe level of emissions.

'Will more and more dependence on international markets be needed as local and regional climatic shocks increase with climate change?'

Like I said, climate change is already here; increased sea temperatures are moving rainfall in Ethiopia so lands are drying up and people are being starved off.

We can't seriously say we should set up systems of exacerbating it in order to deal with its effects.

'We have to keep on making gas masks because people need them to breathe thanks to all the pollution from gas mask factories!'

There's another, simpler, saner and more humane option.