Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

5 Responses

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  1. However there is an extraordinary growth in air freight of food, sensible sounding arguments can be used to muddy the water over this..There is quite a big propaganda effort in my view to muddy the water over the huge growth in air freighting of food…my take on this is here

    Derek Wall

    March 23, 2008 at 9:28 am

  2. Stephen, I could sit down with you over mashed Fraser Valley potatoes and scrambled Fraser Valley eggs and not cover everything.

    When I’m not distracted by transit talk I’m thinking about food and environmental issues. I’m not a strict 100-Mile Diet person, but I set my own rules that are manageable for me: if it grows here but is out of season, I don’t buy it. To that end, I do consume tea (in copious amounts), bananas, chocolate, oranges and… oh dear, I forgot my sweet potatoes in the cart at the market, and those don’t grow here so I made an exception. (I think they’re in season in California at least.) I can’t always get organic, and products like apples are too expensive organic. I think while we weigh our options we do need to pressure for sustainable growing locally and in Vancouver of course, we’re very lucky. At the same time, poorer nations probably need to eat the food they grow, and maybe ought to stick to the same local diet as we’re trying to. The biggest deal, I think, is buying, for example, grapes in Vancouver that have been trucked in from California (or Arkansas! I don’t even know where that is!) when we grow perfectly excellent grapes for several months in BC.

    Fair Trade is under fire lately for maybe not being as fair as we thought. And speaking of banana issues, my market posted a notice saying ‘naners are more expensive because of heavy rains in Ecuador, etc. But, at $0.89/lb, I still got 4 large bananas for $1.65. Isn’t that cheap? I mean, what’s the real cost of 46c/lb bananas?

    Interesting point about the drive for groceries. I picked mine up by bus on the way home from an outing… shoulders hurt like hell the next day but I felt so FREEEE!

    Erika Rathje

    March 23, 2008 at 8:20 pm

  3. Ok just reading the whole article now.

    “It is therefore better for the environment if UK shoppers buy apples from New Zealand in July and August rather than those of British origin.” That’s assuming one MUST buy apples. The alternative is to not buy apples at all for a couple months. Is that so difficult?

    “Packets and wrappers have a small C with a downward arrow through it, beside a figure which represents the number of grams of carbon dioxide emitted during the manufacture of that product.” Are we seriously going crazy? Don’t we consider people who weigh themselves constantly and count all their calories a little nutty?

    We cannot do this by overcomplicating or by oversimplifying the calculation. We need to simplify the food growing and acquiring process.

    Let’s say beans from Kenya emit 100 g, and beans locally emit 120 g, because of petroleum-based fertilisers and tractor use. Using their method, logically one would choose Kenya, right? If we just keep going blindly that direction, there’s little incentive to change things locally unless local producers start to complain. The article is too narrow-focussed: it’s only covering the environmental aspect, and not taking into account the importance of food security, of supporting the local economy, local farmers, local shops and one’s community. Using the pizza example, if I make my own pizza, I might:

    – support local non-greenhouse grown tomato producer, pepper producer, and mushroom producer
    – support, for example, Anita’s Organic Mill and a grower on Vancouver Island
    – use locally produced cheeses
    – make my own sauce using fresh tomatoes, and spice it with herbs I may grow myself or bought fresh at the market

    Fact of the matter is, there will be some C02 no matter what, but I just supported my local economy, didn’t use anything refrigerated, and didn’t have to reheat anything if we’re gonna get that specific. Back in the day people dried, canned, and root cellar-stored, made cheeses and made dry breads that would keep. They did it local, why can’t we?

    Erika Rathje

    March 23, 2008 at 8:47 pm

  4. The issue of course is that both fair trade and now low carbon food were both devised as marketing schemes. From the retailers point of view, it helps to create differentiated products which can command a premium price.

    I do like local, seasonal produce. I much prefer the small misshapen dark red strawberries grown in Richmond to the those big tasteless pink with white flesh imports we see here for much of the year. Our blueberries in season are far better than the ridiculously expensive ones I saw on the shelf at Thrifty on Saturday – which, of course, I did not buy.

    But I wish I could buy a St Lucia sucriere banana. And my car was built in Japan. My computers come from China – of course. And I have a Swiss watch, and a Swiss Army Knife too come to that. It annoys me that I once read about a Richmond farm that was growing real wasabe for the Japanese market – and I have never ever seen it sold here. That green powdery stuff you see next to the soy sauce and pickled ginger is not real wasabe. But we can now eat local geoduck here – if we are wealthy enough.

    And I want once again to own a place with a garden so I can grow some of my own food

    Stephen Rees

    March 24, 2008 at 8:11 am

  5. Erika makes a good point about food security. One quick cruise through Safeways is enough to illustrate the majority of produce is imported by truck and plane, and will become increasingly scarce as fuel prices rise.

    There is also the fiasco called California water management to deal with. That state and Mexico — the two places the bulk of our imported produce comes from — are drying up fast as the Earth warms. The water crisis is arriving faster than originally predicted too. California is actually starting to desalinate seawater and treat its sewage in some counties for drinking water (essentially toilet-to-tap).

    I am quite worried about the integrity of the ALR here, but at least there is a public process involved for removing agricultural lands from the register. I am more woried, though, about prairie cities like Calgary that have experienced intense growth of the wrong kind. That is, thousands of hectares of prime farm land that has been converted to sprawling subdivisions. Food producing soils are grossly undervalued there.

    There is such a thing as Canadian ingenuity, if we just had the self-confidence to generate some. There is a large greenhouse economy here already (limited market gardens too), and I can see it becoming more vital as petroleum and produce rise in price and imports decrease.

    Most greenhouses are heated with wood pellets and lit with energy from the Hydro grid. There are ways to use solar-geothermal heating systems that essentially stores the summer solar heat in the ground for winter use. Provinces like Alberta already have abundant wind energy and more winter solar radiation than coastal BC. Preserving farm land should be first and foremost in any provincial or national food secrurity plan, but conversion of a portion of these lands to greenhouses would surely be a huge benefit. There is also a certain allure to seeing Grown in Canada stickers on oranges in local supermarkets.

    Lastly, new land use policies to promote Canadian food security could lead to the containment of suburbs by farming greenbelts. Market gardens and greenhouses at the edges of our cities would also have a steady economy and employ more people locally than imports, and the food doesn’t have far to travel to market.


    March 26, 2008 at 3:44 pm

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