Food miles flim-flam

By Nathaniel Clark   |   06 May 2010   |   10:00 pm  
African farmers lost millions in Europe’s recent Icelandic-volcano flying ban but their greatest threat comes from European environmentalist fears and European Union farm subsidies.
Just last week, the chairman of a report by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering and others said: “We should ask whether it is right to import green beans–or even roses–from a water-stressed region like Kenya, for example.” He did not mention that parts of Kenya are fertile, with long-standing and efficient agricultural exporters, while others are not, like in many countries: it’s complicated.

In the six days of the ash-cloud ban, Kenya alone lost thousands of jobs and at least US$12 million as tonnes of export produce rotted for lack of flights. Nigeria lost 20% of all exports and the cost has still not been totted up. Because of the backlog, normal air-cargo service from Uganda to Europe will not resume until May 7, and exporters have lost US$7 million so far. South Africa’s exotic flowers alone are worth over a million dollars a week (400m Rand a year) and soft fruit and vegetables were similarly hit. This was just a glimpse of Africans’ fate if we heed Green calls to stop importing their food.

Over 50% of food eaten in the European Union (EU) is now imported: environmentalists accuse this billion-dollar business of emitting too much carbon dioxide, mainly through transport, racking up so-called “food miles.”

Such claims may have an immediate emotive appeal but they wither in the light of the evidence. To make better use of water, African growers are beginning to use modern techniques and technology. Problems with water scarcity usually have more to do with chronic underinvestment and government mismanagement. This situation desperately requires reform but stopping trade and making poor farmers even worse off is not the answer.

Kenya’s agricultural region has the perfect climate for growing flowers and many vegetables–year round sunshine and optimum temperatures (and, indeed, good rainfall). While European growers have to pay for heat, Africans get free, carbon-neutral energy and export it. For many products, the overall carbon saving even includes the transport to European markets.

A recent study by Cranfield University in the UK found that importing flowers all the way from Kenya was almost six times more carbon-efficient than importing from the neighouring Netherlands. Other calculations show that, in the carbon footprint of food from as far away as New Zealand, a British consumer travelling to and from the supermarket by car contributes more emissions per kilogram of food than the food’s transport to the UK. More miles do not demonstrate greater environmental cost.

That “food miles” argument is fashionable but simplistic and inaccurate. Consumers need to know the environmental impact of what they buy because businesses are affected by consumer pressure. What is unethical is campaigning to stop trade with developing countries: “food miles” hysteria even caused UK supermarket chains Marks & Spencer and Tesco to stick a label with a picture of an aeroplane on air-freighted produce–but not on inefficient and subsidised British and European Union food.

Many African countries rely on trade with Europe to sustain millions of people. The Icelandic volcano demonstrated what happens if trade is switched off. Uganda had to discard hundreds of tonnes of processed fish bound for Europe, while Tanzania lost US$300,000 and Zambia lost US$150,000 a day in rotting flowers. There were similar effects on West African cocoa. Green pressure against trade has the power to cut off the livelihoods of millions of Africans.

If European consumers want to help Africans and the environment, instead of following misleading campaigns against carbon or water use in foreign agriculture, they should lobby against the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidies. Shelling out some US$73 billion every year, the EU throws money at farmers in rich countries at the expense of their African competitors (not to mention the long-suffering EU consumers and taxpayers). The CAP also encourages crops that would be more cheaply and carbon-efficiently grown elsewhere.

This incoherent policy acts against free trade with developing countries by artificially lowering the prices of EU products, making cheap, good imported food uncompetitive. Together with food miles hysteria, it threatens the prosperity and health of millions of poor people. Food miles reflect free trade–good for prices, for the environment, for consumers and for the poor.

Clark is a Research Associate at the independent economic-development think-thank International Policy Network, London.



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