Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for March 23rd, 2008

How the myth of food miles hurts the planet

with 5 comments

The Observer

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


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.’

I am being a bit contrarian on this one, I will admit. The idea of reducing our ecological footprint seems to me to be a lot more pressing than just the carbon dioxide. But as we have seen with “renewable fuels” sometimes the reality is not the same as the apparent advantage. And Kenyans are desparately poor and really need a bigger market for their produce.

Do the ten mile diet people completely give up on tea and coffee? Oranges? Bananas? I watched from the sidelines as the demands from the Germans for an end to “commonwealth preference” sideswiped the economy of the Windward Islands. The EU ended the ability of the small scale Caribbean farmers to compete with the big US companies who run large plantations in Central America. Free Trade has some harsh lessons – and the German “need” for cheaper, bigger bananas seemed to me less important than the ability of people on small islands to function in relative economic security. In an odd footnote, the mega-producers started to look very vulnerable soon after as their use of a single variety exposed them to a fungus that did not effect the smaller, sweeter varieties that it turned out could be sold at higher prices to more discriminating consumers. And, as it happens, growing a few banana plants in small clearings in established jungle is a lot more environmentally friendly and labour intensive than huge, mechanised, single crop plantations.

I willingly pay more for fair trade coffee – and keep up the pressure by asking for it in places that don’t have it. I used to hear “there’s no demand” but that seems to be changing now. Coffee beans, by the way, are not airfreighted.

Driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK.’

Written by Stephen Rees

March 23, 2008 at 7:46 am