Rich country concerns about “food miles” continue to undermine economic development in Africa, argues Karen Ellis

Developing countries have to date contributed the least to the problem of human-made climate change. The average American is responsible for one hundred times more carbon dioxide emissions than the average Kenyan.

Yet developing countries are the most vulnerable to the damaging environmental impacts associated with global warming.

Developed world concerns about climate change can sometimes threaten development objectives. This is particularly evident in the case of air-freighted food imports and concerns about the greenhouse gases emitted when food is flown around the world. This has led to a focus on reducing “food miles”, or the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is consumed.

Cutting consumption of air-freighted could, however, threaten the livelihoods of over a million African farmers who rely on air-freighted exports of fresh fruit and vegetables for their income, and who would be much poorer without these export opportunities.

The focus of environmentalists, the media and supermarkets on food miles is disingenuous for a number of reasons. First, food miles alone, or the distance food or other produce has travelled, is an incomplete way of judging its environmental impact.


Researchers at the UK’s Cranfield University last year found that the emissions produced by growing flowers in Kenya and flying them to the UK can be less than a fifth of those grown in heated and lighted greenhouses in Holland. This is because Kenya is warm and sunny, whereas heating greenhouses in Holland uses enormous amounts of energy.

Second, compared to other sources of CO2 emissions, the contribution of air-freight is small. International freight is responsible for only 5 per cent of emissions from air transport whereas passenger flights account for 90 per cent, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development, a London-based think tank.

Air-freighted fruit and vegetables account for only 0.3 per cent of UK emissions, according to the Food Ethics Council, an NGO. Even within the food industry there are other contributors that are far more important to tackle, such as meat and dairy, which account for 8 per cent of total UK emissions, the campaign group estimates.

In addition, the environmental impacts of car-based shopping vastly outweigh those from transport within the food distribution network. So there are many other, much more effective things that consumers could do to reduce their environmental impact, which would not hurt developing country producers.

Protectionist lobby

The distorted focus on food miles has been encouraged by the domestic farm lobby, which has been promoting increased consumption of local, seasonal produce for some time, and has capitalised upon existing concerns about climate change for their own ends, in order to reduce competition from overseas producers. Thus concerns about climate change may have been used as an excuse for protectionism.

The Soil Association’s proposal to remove organic status from all air freighted produce that is not certified as Fairtrade as well, would likely result in the exclusion of many developing country producers from organic markets. The UK organic certification body has been attacked by supermarkets and government alike for its proposal to consider “food miles” when giving its label to products.

Recent public commitments that have been made by supermarkets to reduce the share of air-freighted produce in total sales, could also hurt developing country producers, as could the introduction of labels indicating which products have been air-freighted.

While consumers are now faced with a plethora of eco-labels and standards, there is very little equivalent information available on the development benefits associated with purchases. The Overseas Development Institute has argued for informing consumers of the developmental benefits associated with products through a “Good for Development” label. The mark would also potentially incentivise food retailers and manufacturers in the developed world to improve their development impact.

Trade has an important role to play in tackling both climate change and poverty. It is crucial for stimulating growth in the developing world, for facilitating resource-efficient production, and for promoting the technological progress that is needed if we are to achieve ‘greener’, more energy-efficient, growth going forward. Climate concerns must not become a cover for stifling trade through protectionist purposes.

Karen Ellis is a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute

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