Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Food Miles: Green Good Sense, Ill-Considered Hype, or Naked Protectionism?
Ethan Zuckerman, 26 Feb 07
Article Photo

A few years ago, when Alex and I were first getting to know each other, we both attended the Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. One of the speakers had circulated yellow and green plastic cards to the audience, and asked us to vote on various propositions by holding up one card or another. The questions were meant to be divisive and ethically difficult. One asked whether we thought it was justifiable to introduce Nile Perch into Lake Victoria, likely unbalancing the ecosystem, but providing much-needed protein for local fishermen. I put up a yellow card to indicate that I thought it was justifiable and caught Alex looking at me, green card in his hand. We raised eyebrows at one another and went on to the next question.

There are a lot of situations where environmentalists and sustainable development advocates see eye to eye. We can both get psyched about small-scale solar and wind power, about farming techniques that use less chemical fertilizer, about Dr. Amy Smith’s amazing research on charcoal alternatives.

And then there are issues where we’re just not going to see eye to eye, like the hundred mile diet. James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith decided to spend a year eating only food grown within a hundred miles of their Vancouver, BC home as a way of calling attention to the environmental costs of the typical North American diet. The diet - and the related concept of “food miles” - has become very trendy within the environmental movement. A quick glance on Worldchanging turned up several articles, including an eat local contest, an Iowa State University study on the economic impact of transporting food, and a meditation on local food and national security.

There’s lots of good reasons to seek out local food: it often tastes better, is fresher, forces you to meet your neighbors and gives you an insight into what foods do and don’t grow in your region. (I’m a proud member of our local organic farm, which is one of the pioneers in the CSA movement.) But measuring the environmental impact of a foodstuff based on how many miles it traveled is misleading at best. There’s impact from fertilizer, pesticides, packaging and machinery, as well as the energy expended in actually cooking the food, which can be a major component of the energy cost of a plate of food. A university study in New Zealand, which understandably wants to downplay the environmental impact of shipping lamb from the South Pacific to the UK, argues that farming in NZ is so efficient in comparison to the EU that producing agricultural goods in NZ and shipping them thousands of miles created fewer emissions than producing them in the EU.

NZ’s ag minister, Jim Anderton, makes the argument that “food miles” aren’t really about environmentalism:

“The concept of food miles is both flawed and too often promoted by those motivated by self-serving objectives rather than genuine environmental concerns,” Jim Anderton said. “It is being used in Europe by self interested parties trying to justify protectionism in another guise.”

Which brings me to the article that got me thinking about food miles today, a story by Victoria Averill for the BBC. Averill talks to Kenyan farmers who’ve made the change from growing food for local export to food for global export. 65% of the agricultural produce grown in Kenya is designated for export, half of it to supermarkets in the UK. Economic advisers have been pushing rural farmers to plant “high value” crops for decades - growing flowers for export puts much more money in a farmer’s pocket than growing maize to sell to his neighbors. And Kenya’s pursued this course very aggressively, to the point where horticulture is the second largest industry in the country after tourism.

So the announcement by British supermarket chain Tesco that they’re going to start putting a “carbon count” on their packaging is making Kenyan farmers very nervous. Kenyan food - which is widely sold in Tesco - will now be designated with an airplane on its packaging. And since Tesco is committed to reducing the percent of food that’s flow in from 2-3% to 1%, Kenyan farmers won’t be able to sell as much produce to UK stores.

A Kenyan farmer who Averill interviews points out that his personal carbon footprint as an agricultural producer is a lot lighter than that of his UK consumers:

He points to the simple gravitational water irrigation system that flows through his smallholding, admitting he has never been in a plane, rarely travels by bus and uses nothing but his hands to grow, fertilize and harvest his top quality green beans, which then appear on a supermarket shelf in Europe.

Situations like this leave African farmers feeling helpless and cheated. Kenyan farmers followed well-meaning international advice, and many have benefited from increased revenue from growing high value crops. But if that international market dries up, they’re producing crops that there’s no local market for - a move like this could leave tens of thousands of farmers without a livelihood, at least until they can retool their crop mix.

Certainly it’s admirable that Tesco wants to limit its environmental impact. Lots of the changes they’re proposing for lighting and heating their stores and for making their distribution system more efficient are excellent ones. But limiting agriculture from Africa isn’t likely to have a major environmental impact - one study suggests that a complete boycott on air-freight produce from Africa would reduce UK emissions less than 0.1%. And it’s certainly going to raise questions about whether a move like the one Tesco is proposing is about environmentalism, protectionism, or simple ill-considered hype.


Bookmark and Share


Just before Valentine's Day we in the UK were encouraged by International Development Secretary Hilary Benn to buy African flowers, which I think got many people thinking about this issue here.

I grew up surrounded by Thatcher's "Buy British" campaign that had nothing to do with food miles, and always had a distasteful aura of nationalism. Certainly there will be right-wing factions who will be happy to leap on board the food miles bandwagon for non-environmental reasons; but equally, there will be many people who use the "it's just protectionism" argument to mask their unwillingness to make changes to reduce climate impacts.

My guess is that until big business and environmental economists collaboratively pull their fingers out and develop a "true" carbon count system (which is probably impossible in any strict sense), the "buy local" message may be the least inaccurate rule of thumb to propagate.

Posted by: Gyrus on 26 Feb 07

Shouldn't the parties that "encouraged" them to make a switch to export-oriented "high value" products at least partly subsidize their shift into more sustainable and scientific models and "agricultural portfolios"?

This assessment leaves out important facts. How much of the land goes to producing export crops versus local food? Etc. Etc.

I have met too many farmers here in Southeast Asia who produce export goods, and who are bogged down by the high chemical costs of climate/land-incompatible growing too even afford basic staples for their families.

These sorts of low-value added agri exports may provide jobs in poor countries-- but for how long? Can the soil fertility hold up, or is it just like mining the nutrients from it? Will supermarket chains keep demanding tonnes of mega-sized onions, forcing monoculture and intensive chemicals? Maybe producing export products is a short boost for acute situations. But you have soil ecology, local nutrition, etc to keep in mind, and all the other intangibles you will have to quantify (if you must) in your head.

I'm not against exports (I do it for our business) and I think freight has sustainable prospects. But I think that things like BOP and susainable (or less harmful) agriculture can work wonders in countries like Kenya and solve nutrition problems.

But that's just me looking inside from out.

Posted by: Bea on 27 Feb 07

Some balance might help us get through the next influenza pandemic.

Just a thought.

Posted by: lugon on 27 Feb 07

Personal carbon limits coupled to carbon labelling is, I believe, the simplest and most equitable method for the future.

That would allow people to buy food from afar if they wished, but they'd need to save carbon elsewhere instead. Or buy credits from someone - much like a carbon trading scheme.

Posted by: John Kazer on 27 Feb 07

Instead of doing "carbon count" just for transport, count it for the total carbon used to produce the food and transport it to the consumer. You then have a better sense of how much stress you put on planet earth when buying an item.

It must not be the only criteria on which to base a purchase. Quality is another one, social concerns etc.

Posted by: Ilan Ginzburg on 27 Feb 07

"That would allow people to buy food from afar if they wished, but they'd need to save carbon elsewhere instead. Or buy credits from someone - much like a carbon trading scheme."

Sorry, but that is self defeating. If you turn it into some bullshit capitalist thing it will fail as with all other things. Letting the mythical hand of Adam Smith to take care of it is just dogma. The same dogma that got us where we are today.

First of all you are PRIVATIZING the atmosphere in a sense. That's a major fascist corporate clusterfuck. Earth's atmosphere belongs to every human being and every animal and plant. Privatizing a basic human need (and by privatizing the air you hit the absolute most bottom) means that wealthy fucks can take the clean air from poor people.

Personal carbon emissions for people and corporations will go the same way as "privatized" laws for private citizens and corporations. If you kill a guy you get life if you're lucky or the chair if you are in Texas. But mass product some filth that increases tenfold the risk of cancer or some other bullshit like the major agri-food corporations and what? Nothing, because there's no corporate responsability.

People with money will go on wrecking the environment as they can throw more money at it.

This is the same naive approach as the Kyoto protocol. "Trading" emissions won't help at all. You try to solve the problem like a dumb shit economist who's been brainwashed all his life into a practical dogma of "there is no other way" Capitalism for teh win! Grow or die! Economic growth at all costs.

The root cause it this illusion of perpetual growth that is reflected in ALL aspects of the western culture. A successful individual is an individual that buys more and more and more expensive each time. You can't both grow absurdly out of all proportions AND save/protect the environment. You just can't. Unless you pick an axe and slit the throat of... ummm... 4-5 billion people and make a second child punishable by death.

What if we let kenyans grow food for their OWN consumption. Why do they need so desperatly to export? So every one of them can afford SUVs and iPods and 40" LCD TVs? That's the problem. Not some stupid labels and "emissions trading". If WTO and the other "higher powers" wouldn't play "my way or I'll find WMDs over there" with all those nations they wouldn't NEED trading emissions.

But then again when most people are bombarded each and every single day with TV, radio, print and online advertising and grand hollywood propaganda who tells them that a successful life and an accomplished individual drives a humongous SUV with a perfect tits blonde whore on his right and 5 different PDAs/mobiles the largest possible laptop and maybe a gold plated iPod, that your goal in life is to work to PEAK EFFICIENCY and get payed and buy the largest possible plasma TV - because that's "the good life" and shit.

How about for a change leave the poor Africans alone and stop pretending you know what should they do with their economy. What if *gasp* they grow food to feed their starving-to-death people? Well no, sez WTO and an array of filthy Wall Street "specialists" will scream in terror! If they don't fly foods in Europe they won't have any money for intel core2duo with 4Mb cache and 60Gb iPods! Well guess what? How about THEY DON'T FUCKING NEED all that shit anyways.

12 years ago I could buy *organic* apples cheap dirt. Juici, tasty fruits grown in normal orchids. But now crappy flown-over-from-turkey or whatever apples, filled with who knows what shit, tasteless and all cost more than I payed 12 years ago for natural products. Now, *organic* products (the same thing I bought normally 12 years ago) cost as much as 6 times more. Thank you the masturbating invisible hand of capitalism for guiding "the market forces" in this filthy retarded situation. But I guess, just like Margaret "it-was-worth-500000-children-dead-from-genocidal-embargo" Thatcher, "it's the only way"...

Bottom line, "privatizing" our atmosphere is yet another bullshit technique to show that the corporates *care*. It won't work because it's fucking wrong - according to christians,muslims,jews,buddhists,vulcans,vegans and whatever - to make profit from basic human needs, hence from human misery.

Is it a system that starts with "all people are equal"? How about the equality of those who plundered and polluted until now. We're not on the verge of filth-world because kenyans or chineese or whatever, we are on the verge of filth-world because of americans and europeeans (including russians). Exactly the ones babbling their idiocies at gun point about how other should run their countries, what foods they can grow and for what exact purpose, how much they should spend on education, what is right, what is wrong, what is trendy, what is life and so on.

How about after some 400 years, grow your own food, work your own people and exploit your own resources. That's how you help kenyans and others. Not idiotic capitalist adaptations for environmental problems like "carbon trading"...

Rant over.

Posted by: Uncle bob on 27 Feb 07

Back in the real world Uncle Bob, how are you going to get anyone to listen to your ranting, let alone act on what you're suggesting? Sorry, but I work in the realm of the possible and you're living on cloud-cuckoo at the moment.

What the hell is a "major fascist corporate clusterfuck" ?! Seriously, you can't expect me to take your concerns seriously by spouting this sort of stuff.

Posted by: John Kazer on 28 Feb 07

Quoting the New Zealand Agriculture Minister on whether it's good for people to buy NZ agricultural produce! Even if New Zealand lamb is so much less carbon intensive because of their farming methods, isn't that an argument for matching their farming methods rather than shipping their over meat here?

Saying food miles is 'very trendy', as if people concerned are just following some sort of fashion rather than any more rigorous motive.

Then misquoting the BBC article; '65% of the agricultural produce grown in Kenya is designated for export' isn't true, the source actually says 'Fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables make up 65% of all exports from Kenya to the European Union'.

Then citing another BBC Green Room piece (which are intended to be biased and provocative, btw) saying 'when considering UK grown potatoes, 48% of all energy used during the potato's life cycle is expended in the kitchen'.

There's an implication that if we increase energy use in production and transport it'll be a good thing because it will reduce the percentage used in the kitchen.

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

Er, since when does 48% dwarf 52%?

If these are your sources then you've not making much of a case.

Certainly, there are other energy use issues with food apart from food miles. That doesn't mean that food miles is 'at best misleading', just that it's not the whole story.

Regarding the Kenyan farmers, 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 a UK supermarket costing 99p takes around 50 litres of Kenyan water. It's an environmental disaster that is depriving people 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? Surely sustainable African livelihoods are the ones to encourage rather than the unsustainable.

There is certainly more to carbon cost than distance, but that's not an argument to buy Kenyan. It's an argument to cut many carbon intensive practices instead of just aviation.

Posted by: Merrick on 28 Feb 07

I'm a big proponent of supporting the local farm industry, and particularly the local organic sector; I love the Local Harvest website ( Local and fresh food is better, and I just wrote a blog entry to that extent.

But I grow my own food and support certain local farms because I know all the practices involved are more sustainable. Field preparation, planting, watering, chemicals, harvest, etc -- it is all part of the carbon equation. We're tearing down a wall, and all the bricks count.

Posted by: Nathan on 28 Feb 07


I am with you that Food Miles is overblown from an energy conservation point of view. I took a look at it and based on my back of the envelope calculations, the energy you use to drive to and from the store is much greater than the energy used to transport the food to the store from the farm. If you take an extra trip to the farmers market to buy locally grown food, the gasoline you used to fuel your car is probably greater than the amount you save by buying local food.

I think you have an interesting take on buying from Africa. I think you can make a compelling case that buying goods from poorer countries is morally superior to buying local goods. I laid it out in The Moral Case for Globalization. Personally, I would still like to know how much additional energy and carbon emissions were caused by shipping goods from Africa, but if it isn't too great, I would still choose to buy them.

Posted by: Fat Knowledge on 4 Mar 07



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg