The Rights and Wrongs of Food Miles

December 26, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

Professor Tim Lang, who invented the term ‘food miles’, is a gifted campaigner – it’s memorable, immediate and challenges consumers to take action to curb the environmental destruction caused by daft practices like shipping bottled water to markets on the other side of the world. But what if you’re one of the 1.5 million African farmers and labourers who grow flowers and vegetables for export, mainly to the UK?

A new study adds weight to the argument that we need to exercise caution (and do better research) before letting food miles dictate our eating habits. Looking at food bought by US consumers, two researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (it’s not easy having to name universities after benefactors…) find that production, not transportation, of food is responsible for over 80 per cent of its emissions footprint. Getting food from field to fork is a relatively minor contributor to food emissions. The study also breaks down food emissions by type of food, finding that red meat is around 150 per cent more greenhouse gas intensive than chicken or fish, and similarly more intensive compared to fresh fruit and vegetables – the foods for which the ‘food miles’ debate is most frequently wheeled out (think of the iconic Kenyan green bean). The authors conclude that shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than buying only locally-sourced food.

It’s always hard when a neat campaign idea turns out to be bad policy, but we’ve been here before. In the mid-1990s, northern consumers were up in arms over child labour in the rapidly globalizing garment industry. The obvious (and highly campaignable) answer? Boycott clothes imported from countries like Bangladesh, where child labour was prevalent. US Senator Tom Harkin even introduced a ‘Child Labor Deterrence Act’ in Congress on the issue. The Bangladeshi garment manufacturers took pre-emptive action and sacked an estimated 50,000 child labourers – who since they still had to earn a living, ended up in worse jobs, some as prostitutes, or breaking bricks (a peculiar and nasty Bangladeshi cottage industry).

So a great campaign, but a misconceived one – a bit like food miles, in fact. The good news on child labour is that NGOs, trade unions and the garment industry realized that the easy answer wasn’t the right one, and embarked on a painful search for an alternative, which led to the introduction of codes of conduct, independent monitoring, and agreement that when child workers were found in a supply chain, they would be helped to get an education without losing vital income for their families. Have a look at the Ethical Trading Initiative for more on this.

So what would be the equivalent messy, but right, approach on food and carbon? No easy answers (sorry), but two guiding principles would help make sure that we can all eat for both people and planet.

First equity: African farmers are amongst those least responsible for climate change, and yet they are being hit first and hardest by its effects – where’s the justice in making them pay first to correct the results of our own carbon profligacy?

Second proportionality: While we acknowledge the impact that a growth in airfreight will have on carbon emissions, it’s important to keep things in perspective. If everyone in the UK switched one 100W light bulb to a low energy equivalent it would, over a year, reduce UK CO2 emissions by five times the amount that would result from not purchasing fresh fruit and vegetables from sub-Saharan Africa. We should (literally) put our own house in order before boycotting African produce in the name of climate change. And we’ve seen how red meat’s footprint compares with that of fruit and vegetables.

As development campaigners wrestle with the challenge of climate change, and environmentalists acknowledge that social and development dimensions are as critical as purely environmental ones, tensions are bound to surface. The key thing is for both groups to work together to find the best ways to safeguard both people and planet.


December 26, 2008
Duncan Green