Myths on food miles

Bookmark and Share Food & Environment and Food | Tim Wilson
The Australian 10th March, 2008

Last week federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Tony Burke, exposed the ``food miles'' campaign as ``nothing more than protectionism''. Burke is right, but beneath such transparent protectionism, the food miles emperor is still naked.

Food miles is the latest chic campaign for environmental activists to reduce CO2 emissions. But perhaps counterintuitively, if activists and consumers want to reduce their CO2 footprint they may want to support their food travelling longer, not shorter, distances.

The principle of the food miles campaign is simple. There is a significant -- and, activists argue, an unnecessary -- CO2 footprint associated with transporting produce. The solution is therefore to avoid these emissions by ``buying local'' and exercising caution when purchasing imports.

Late last year a Melbourne organisation, Community Environment Park, released a report drawing attention to the carbon footprint of food purchased by Melbourne consumers. The report unsurprisingly outlined the large footprint for much of the food bought in Melbourne's supermarkets, regardless of whether it was produced domestically or internationally.

It may seem logical that the further the distance a product travels, the bigger its CO2 footprint. But as Trade Minister, Simon Crean yesterday pointed out, this view is simplistic.

First, only a full life-cycle carbon footprint can accurately measure total emissions. A life-cycle assessment would require a calculation of the total CO2 emissions from the seeding of crops and the birth of livestock, to their delivery to the consumer.

Second, the fuel efficiency that comes with bulk transport, and the mode of transport itself, need to be factored in. Agricultural products from our region transported by sea to England can produce equivalent emissions as comparable products travelling by road to England from southern Europe.

In his address to the trade ministers' meeting held alongside the UN's Bali climate change summit in December last year, director-general of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy, made this point clear. Lamy argued that ``90 per cent of internationally traded goods are carried by sea. And maritime transport is by far the most carbon-efficient mode of transport, with only 14g of CO2 emissions per tonne-kilometre''.

In many cases, a more accurate life-cycle assessment will show that importing food that travels long distances can be better for the environment than producing it locally.

The inputs would not simply be limited to transportation costs, but would also consider such items as fertiliser, electricity, feed, tools and housing.

A recent study done by New Zealand's Lincoln University demonstrated this well. The study looked at the life-cycle carbon footprint of apples, onions and lamb exported to Europe. For all three items, the total energy input per tonne of output was substantially less if the product was produced in NZ and exported to Europe, than if it was produced locally. In the case of lamb, the CO2 emissions were more than four times less.

Third, the food miles campaign ignores the environmental benefits of international trade.

The primary determinant of a product's life-cycle carbon footprint is the level of inputs. The costs of inputs are not ignored by competitive food producers. If a producer successfully reduces these inputs, it will be able to bring its product to market at a lower price, with the added benefit of a smaller footprint. Free markets are environmentally sustainable because they seek the maximum output for the minimum input.

And herein lies the challenge for the Labor Government. Despite Kevin Rudd's general commitment to the efficiency of free markets, many of his MPs are not so sure. Among the ranks of Labor's caucus is a number of protectionists who question the environmental benefits of free trade.

Equally Rudd has a number of climate evangelists who actively support reducing CO2 emissions at all costs.

And following the change of the Senate in July, the Greens are likely to move from the fringe of public policy debate to the centre. The Australian Greens should follow their NZ counterparts. In 2006, co-party leader of the NZ Greens highlighted the Greens' opposition to food miles and argued that environmental activists ``need to consider the emissions released during production, not just the transport emissions''.

Despite the evidence not stacking up, too many advocates of food miles ignore the complexity of proper accounting for carbon footprints, and instead rely on anti-trade rhetoric to get their message across. And even fewer consider the beneficial role international trade and free markets can play in reducing emissions.

Agriculture is a diminishing but still vital component of the Australian economy. Burke is right to expose the food miles campaign as a front for protectionism and should campaign heavily against it.


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