A few years ago, as Alex Steffen (founder of Worldchanging.com, where I serve as chairman of the board of directors) and I were 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 travelled 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 advisors 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 aggresively, 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, fertilise 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 benefitted 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.