Sunday, March 23, 2008

How the myth of food miles hurts the planet

Robin McKie
The Observer (UK)

Sunday March 23 2008

Ethical shopping just got more complicated. The idea that only local produce is good is under attack. There is growing evidence to suggest that some air-freighted food is greener than food produced in the UK. Robin McKie and Caroline Davies report on how the concept of food miles became oversimplified - and is damaging the planet in the process.

This article comes at a perfect time, to show how looking at farming methods matters as much as distance.

"But the idea that 'only local is good' has come under attack. For a start, food grown in areas where there is high use of fertilisers and tractors is likely to be anything but carbon-friendly, it is pointed out. At the same time the argument against food miles - which show how far a product has been shipped and therefore how much carbon has been emitted in its transport - has been savaged by experts. 'The concept of food miles is unhelpful and stupid. It doesn't inform about anything except the distance travelled,' Dr Adrian Williams, of the National Resources Management Centre at Cranfield University, told The Observer last week.

Given that the food miles cause was hailed only a few months ago as the means to empower the carbon-conscious consumer, such criticisms are striking, and suggest that some careful reassessment of the concept's usefulness has been going on.

Certainly the issues involved no longer seem clear-cut. Consider that supermarket stalwart: green beans from Kenya. These are air-freighted to stores to allow consumers to buy fresh beans when British varieties are out of season. Each packet has a little sticker with the image of a plane on it to indicate that carbon dioxide from aviation fuel was emitted in bringing them to this country. And that, surely, is bad, campaigners argue. Rising levels of carbon dioxide are trapping more and more sunlight and inexorably heating the planet, after all.

But a warning that beans have been air-freighted does not mean we should automatically switch to British varieties if we want to help the climate. Beans in Kenya are produced in a highly environmentally-friendly manner. 'Beans there are grown using manual labour - nothing is mechanised,' says Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones of Bangor University, an expert on African agriculture. 'They don't use tractors, they use cow muck as fertiliser; and they have low-tech irrigation systems in Kenya. They also provide employment to many people in the developing world. So you have to weigh that against the air miles used to get them to the supermarket.'"
At the same time, this helps on the matter of greening lifestyles:

"When you do that - and incorporate these different factors - you make the counter-intuitive discovery that air-transported green beans from Kenya could actually account for the emission of less carbon dioxide than British beans. The latter are grown in fields on which oil-based fertilisers have been sprayed and which are ploughed by tractors that burn diesel. In the words of Gareth Thomas, Minister for Trade and Development, speaking at a recent Department for International Development air-freight seminar: 'Driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK.'

'Half the people who boycott air-freighted beans think they are doing some good for the environment. Then they go on a budget airline holiday to Prague the next weekend,' adds Bill Vorley, head of sustainable markets for the International Institute for Environment and Development. 'They are just making gestures.'"

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