Friday, October 03, 2008

The food miles myth

At the Conservative and Labour conferences I spoke at events on the subject of food miles. The idea that consumers should pay great attention to the distance food has travelled from the producer to their plate. Food miles are one of those concepts that can sound important to some politicians and campaigners, who lack the experience and longevity in their posts to get to grips with the detail of issues like the environmental impacts of agriculture, as they make the complex issue of the externalities associated with producing food seem incredibly simple. In reality, things are more complex.

A study by Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews, at Carnegie Mellon University, describes how transport produces just a small portion of total emissions in producing agricultural goods. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Other factors - from whether plants are grown in a heated greenhouse or under the sun to the amount of mechanisation needed - are far more important.

That is why Dr. Adrian Williams, of Cranfield University, described the concept of food miles as "unhelpful and stupid". Counting food miles will often mean getting your analysis of the environmental impacts of different products wrong. Air-freighted green beans from Kenya actually account for the emission of less carbon dioxide than British beans. Roses produced in the Netherlands and transported to Britain cause 35,000 kg of carbon emissions per 12,000 stems, against 600 kg of carbon emissions per 12,000 stems of Kenyan roses. The carbon footprint of NZ milk solids, lamb and apples (PDF) sold in the UK is up to four times lower than that of their locally produced equivalent, even if transport emissions are included.

The food miles myth endangers the livelihoods of many in the poor world. For example, according to the Kenyan High Commission in London, (PDF) the Kenyan horticultural industry supports around 135,000 Kenyans directly and many hundreds of thousands more indirectly, and the produce supplied to the UK alone generates at least £100m per year for Kenya. Organisations like Greenpeace that try to endorse the concept of food miles and fair trade at the same time are contradicting themselves.

It also hurts British consumers. Ordinary people are already struggling with rising food prices. These increases are, to a large extent, driven by hideously ineffective biofuel subsidies that have driven prices up by 75% according to the World Bank, costing $960 to $1,700 per tonne of CO2 saved according to the OECD. Consumers should not be asked to bear a further burden by ruling out the most cost-effective way of producing many foodstuffs (i.e. producing them abroad) which will further push up the price of food. Consumers health might also be put at risk if there is a smaller range of acceptable fruits and vegetables in many months where UK production is limited by our climate and consumption drops.

People who take food miles seriously risk hurting the interests of ordinary people here and in the Third World to little environmental end.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.