Food Fetishism, Cheap Oil and Pollution
Posted by msrb on April 28, 2008
Excerpts are from:
Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World
The New York Times April 26, 2008
by E. Rosenthal and D. Pinto
Cod caught off Norway is shipped to China to be turned into filets, then shipped back to Norway for sale. Argentine lemons fill supermarket shelves on the Citrus Coast of Spain, as local lemons rot on the ground. Half of Europe’s peas are grown and packaged in Kenya. [“Norwegian cod costs a manufacturer $1.36 a pound to process in Europe, but only 23 cents a pound in Asia.” And the hell with internalizing the environmental costs. Oh, and it’s nice to know there is still cod left off Norway!]
In the United States, FreshDirect proclaims kiwi season has expanded to “All year!” now that Italy has become the world’s leading supplier of New Zealand’s national fruit, taking over in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.
And the penetration of mega-markets in nations from China to Mexico with supply and distribution chains that gird the globe — like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco — has accelerated the trend.
But the movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food. [Include processing, packaging and refrigeration!]
Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures.
“We’re shifting goods around the world in a way that looks really bizarre,” said Paul Watkiss, an Oxford University economist who wrote a recent European Union report on food imports.
He noted that Britain, for example, imports — and exports — 15,000 tons of waffles a year, and similarly exchanges 20 tons of bottled water with Australia. More important, Mr. Watkiss said, “we are not paying the environmental cost of all that travel.”
[Cheap oil has distorted the notion of creating ‘economic gains’ to such great extents that governments subsidize the industry to export and import the same product, often in similar quantities, within the same fiscal period. Country A exports Q tons of product P to country B, while it imports Q tons of the same product P from country B at the same time, with a net zero gain in commodity exchange for either country. However, the exchange produces about 9Q tons of CO2e pollution, nine times the weight of the commodity that was flown in either direction, for every 1,000 miles that the consignment is airborne. See The Death of Homo Sapiens Sapiens (Part 1)]
The European Union, the world’s leading food importer, has increased imports 20 percent in the last five years. The value of fresh fruit and vegetables imported by the United States, in second place, nearly doubled from 2000 to 2006.
Under a little-known international treaty called the Convention on International Civil Aviation, signed in Chicago in 1944 to help the fledgling airline industry, fuel for international travel and transport of goods, including food, is exempt from taxes, unlike trucks, cars and buses. There is also no tax on fuel used by ocean freighters.
Proponents say ending these breaks could help ensure that producers and consumers pay the environmental cost of increasingly well-traveled food.
[Our weekly shopping basket includes items that would have flown more air miles than the average family fly in their lifetime! A 1kg (2.2lb) bag of New Zealand kiwifruit (in any of its cadmium, arsenic, lead, mercury… or organochlorine varieties) produces about 142kg (313lb) of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent gases) pollution flying to the US, or 188.7kg (416lb) of CO2e to Europe. See The Death of Homo Sapiens Sapiens (Part 1)]
And with far cheaper labor costs in African nations, Morocco and Egypt have displaced Spain in just a few seasons as important suppliers of tomatoes and salad greens to central Europe.
Some studies have calculated that as little as 3 percent of emissions from the food sector are caused by transportation. But Mr. Watkiss, the Oxford economist, said the percentage was growing rapidly. Moreover, imported foods generate more emissions than generally acknowledged because they require layers of packaging and, in the case of perishable food, refrigeration.
Britain, with its short growing season and powerful supermarket chains, imports 95 percent of its fruit and more than half of its vegetables. Food accounts for 25 percent of truck shipments in Britain, according to the British environmental agency, DEFRA.
Mr. Datson of Tesco acknowledged that there were environmental consequences to the increased distances food travels, but he said his company was merely responding to consumer appetites. “The offer and range has been growing because our customers want things like snap peas year round,” Mr. Datson said. “We don’t see our job as consumer choice editing.” [Tell that to melting ice!]
Global supermarket chains like Tesco and Carrefour, spreading throughout Eastern Europe and Asia, cater to a market for convenience foods, like washed lettuce and cut vegetables. They also help expand the reach of global brands.
Pringles potato chips, for example, are now sold in more than 180 countries, though they are manufactured in only a handful of places, said Kay Puryear, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble, which makes Pringles.
Proponents of taxing transportation fuel say it would end such distortions by changing the economic calculus.
“Food is traveling because transport has become so cheap in a world of globalization,” said Frederic Hague, head of Norway’s environmental group Bellona. “If it was just a matter of processing fish cheaper in China, I’d be happy with it traveling there. The problem is pollution.”
Switzerland, which does not belong to the E.U., already taxes trucks that cross its borders.
Some studies have shown that shipping fresh apples, onions and lamb from New Zealand might produce lower emissions than producing the goods in Europe … [Don’t the statistics related to shipment of toxic food from New Zealand have a habit of defying physical laws and conventional maths?]
But those studies were done in New Zealand, and the food travel debate is inevitably intertwined with economic interests. [Right!]
Last month, Tony Burke, the Australian minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, said that carbon footprinting and labeling food miles — the distance food has traveled — was “nothing more than protectionism.” [O RLY?]
Box Fresh Organics, a popular British brand, advertises that 85 percent of its vegetables come from the British Midlands. But in winter, in its standard basket, only the potatoes and carrots are from Britain. The grapes are South African, the fennel is from Spain and the squash is Italian.