Benito Müller from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies explained the concept of ‘food miles’ to participants in the 4th Brussels Development Briefing. In contrast to other speakers in the panel who highlighted more beneficial potentials of climate change policies for developing countries, Müller emphasized how some environment policies can damage development. He strongly criticized ‘food miles’ as an example where environmental concerns can harm development efforts.

Individuals and organizations are increasingly encouraged to consume local products instead of buying environmentally unfriendly, air-fright products. As an example, strawberries imported from countries like Kenya have became a classic ‘high carbon footprint product’ that the sustainable consumer should avoid. Some British supermarkets have started to label air-freighted produce so that locally-grown produce is more popular; in some cases they have stopped buying flowers grown in Kenya. This of course provoked very strong reactions from countries like Kenya, concerned for the economic damage such behaviour can cause their countries.

Mr. Müller strongly criticized this practice. First, the concept of ‘food miles’ is an over-simplified indicator of harm to global climate. Simple distances are not the only factor influencing the climate change impact of food. When one looks at the full life-cycle of a product, flowers grown in Kenya have a lower carbon footprint than flowers grown in heated and lighted greenhouses in The Netherlands, even if transport emissions are included. “Food miles”, Mr. Müller concludes, “are woefully inadequate as a measure of climate change impacts of agricultural produce. What is required instead is a full life-cycle carbon footprint analysis”.

Second, the harm to poor countries caused by boycotting their produce is significant. According to research, one million livelihoods in Kenya are partly supported by the fresh produce trade with the UK alone. The produce supplied to the UK generates at least 100 million pounds each year for Kenya.

Third, Mr. Müller described the concept of ‘food miles’ as somehow hypocritical, because it is only applied to basic food products, but not to for example to computers or cars.

Finally, it is not fair to punish developing countries. The important exporters are the poorest and therefore less emitting countries. “They underuse what we have overused”, Mr. Müller argued.

Possible solutions to the ‘food miles’ dilemma include: Public finance could offset the international transport emissions generated for fresh fruit and vegetables imported from the most vulnerable countries. Projects under the Clean Development Mechanism in those countries would be an appropriate measure. Proper and fair labeling would help the consumer to take both the carbon offset and the development benefits into account. The ‘Grown under the sun’ label proposed by the Kenyan High Commission could be a way to emphasize the poverty eradication effects. Finally, consuming countries should support a shift towards less carbon intensive transport, for example by improving maritime technology to make the shipping of products possible.

In his conclusion, Müller argues that “eating Kenyan strawberries at Christmas is not a guilty pleasure, but a moral obligation”!



Paper (pdf format)

See more from the 13 February briefing.

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