Food Miles and Sustainability

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) carried yesterday an article by Scott Gallacher about Food Miles. It is a very balanced look at an idea which is gaining high recognition by consumers around the world; but especially in the UK and Europe.

(Unfortunately, I cannot link to the AFR article as the paper has decided to restrict its online content, even to its paper subscribers. For a paper subscirber like me; I need to pay additional monthly fees to access a online software version which cannot be linked. Think about the decision. Which publication in the world creates a online non-linkable, non Googlable edition in the year 2007. Considering the monopoly of the business paper in Australia it may last for a while but slowly its ability to influence matters will come down especially with similar coverage by its sister publications and increased online coverage by The Australian and other News limited papers.)

Coming back to Scott’s article.

Food Miles is the idea of calculating the distance travelled by a particular food item (fruit, veggies, meat, dairy products, wine) from farm/production to table. The contention is that; the greater the distance the higher the transport emissions and hence, less sustainable.

This perception of carbon content of food is very important for companies engaged in the export of food

The Guardian article in 2003 suggets this:

our food is transported further than ever before, often by air. That makes it a major contributor to greenhouse emissions and climate change. It also means a heavy dependence on a resource that is not only finite but also highly politically-charged: oil. So our food supply is more vulnerable than before. By blockading a few depots during the fuel strike in the autum of 2000, protesters were able to bring the system perilously close to collapse.

Similar ideas in The Independent in May 2007.

When I pick up a carton of organic Chilean blueberries, Argentinian blackberries, or Zambian sugarsnap peas, all air-freighted from their countries of origin, my carefully constructed rationale for buying organic is shot full of holes. Only the most stubborn climate-change deniers still challenge the notion that air-freight, with all its CO2 emissions, is contributing to global warming and helping to heat up the planet towards the point of no return. Air freight emits more greenhouse gases per food mile than any other mode of transport. This is what I am aiding and abetting when I pick up any air-freighted product – whether or not it carries an organic stamp.

However, what is the truth? or should I say the ‘whole truth’. Clearly transportation is not the only aspect of food production and distribution. Water, fertilizers, energy, production efficiencies and much more go into any food production.

Scott suggets two studies which have a different opinion.

The first study is by Defra, the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, titled “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development” conducted in 2005.

The study suggets that “a single indicator based on total food kilometers is an inadequate indicator of sustainability“. It provides data on the economic, social and environmental impact of food transport including pollution, congestion and noise. The interesting thing it finds is that most of the impact of transport is for food within UK (cars to supermarkets, trucks to distribute around the country etc) compared to international transport. In the international area, if transported by sea or rail it is much better than Air.

Coming to the life cycle of food Defra’s study suggets that “a case study showed that it can be more sustainable (at least in energy efficiency terms) to import tomatoes from Spain than to produce them in heated greenhouses in the UK outside the summer months. Another case study showed that it can be more sustainable to import organic food into the UK than to grow non-organic food in the UK.” Again this can change from case to case depending on the type of international transport used.

A second study by the New Zealand based Lincoln University (PDF) in 2006 shows that the carbon footprint of lamb, dairy products and apples are far less than that of their european equivalents even after the long journey from New Zealand to Europe. A simple reason is that NZ products are produced more efficiently than European ones.

They have undertaken a detailed anaylsis of a various inputs and outputs in farm in NZ and compared this to the ones in Europe and then arrived at this conclusion.

This entire exercise is important because from a business point of view if customers start buying their products based on “food miles” then; a large number of exports from countries like NZ and Australia and other places could be effected.

Considering that between the 2003 Guardian aricle and the 2007 Independent article, the above two studies have been published the explanation of Food Miles has not changed.  This is dangerous territory. Like the push against nuclear power; this suggets that there could be a strong idealogical notion around food miles.

A simpler explanation to all this is to look at the price of a product. If a product is cheaper; in general;
it means that it would consume lesser resources. The price of a product would encapsulate the energy, transportation, inputs, labour costs and other resources used in creating and distributing the product.

A much better explanation of this comes from the economic concept of Comparitive Advantage; which was first suggested by David Ricardo.

Lauren Lansberg explains:

Someone who is the best at doing something is said to have an absolute advantage. Lance Armstrong has an absolute advantage at cycling. For all I know, Lance Armstrong may also be the fastest typist in the world, giving him an absolute advantage at typing, too. Since he’s better at typing than you, can’t he type more cheaply than you? That is, if someone has an absolute advantage in something, doesn’t he automatically have a comparative advantage in it?

The answer is no! If Lance takes time out from cycling to do all his own typing, he sacrifices the large income he earns from entertaining fans of the Tour de France. If, instead, his secretary does the typing, the secretary gives up an alternative secretarial job—or perhaps a much lower salary as a cyclist. That is, the secretary is the lower-cost typist. The secretary, not Lance Armstrong, has the comparative advantage at typing! The trick to understanding comparative advantage is in the phrase “lower cost.” What it costs someone to produce something is the opportunity cost—the value of what is given up. Someone may have an absolute advantage at producing every single thing, but he has a comparative advantage at many fewer things, and probably only one or two things. (In Lance’s case, both cycling and also as the entrepreneur behind the yellow LiveStrong wristband.)


The moral is this: To find people’s comparative advantages, do not compare their absolute advantages. Compare their opportunity costs.

The point is simple. If NZ has a comparitive advantage in producing lamb meat; then it provides UK the opportunity to spealize and create another product at a lower cost. The result from a carbon point of view is that it will decrease the carbon footprint of both the products.

This case underscores the point that it is important to question the agreed upon wisdom of the experts and be open minded in our thinking.


One thought on “Food Miles and Sustainability

  1. Pingback: World is Green : Business Strategy and Sustainability | Mike Lester and the Tangerine Case «

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