Locavores vs. year-round kiwi fruit
The Food Chain: Movable Feast Carries a Pollution Price Tag
By Elisabeth Rosenthal for the New York Times, April 26, 2008
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.
The movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food.
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 an Oxford University economist ... [who] noted that Britain imports — and exports — 15,000 tons of waffles a year, and similarly exchanges 20 tons of bottled water with Australia.
This year the European Commission in Brussels announced that all freight-carrying flights into and out of the European Union would be included in the trading bloc's emissions-trading program by 2012, meaning permits will have to be purchased for the pollution they generate.
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.
Some foods that travel long distances may actually have an environmental advantage over local products, like flowers grown in the tropics instead of in energy-hungry European greenhouses.
Better transportation networks have sharply reduced the time required to ship food abroad. For instance, improved roads in Africa have helped cut the time it takes for goods to go from farms on that continent to stores in Europe to 4 days, compared with 10 days not too many years ago.
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.
The economics are compelling. For example, Norwegian cod costs a manufacturer $1.36 a pound to process in Europe, but only 23 cents a pound in Asia.
"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."
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.
Today's retailers could not survive if they failed to offer such variety, Mr. Moorehouse, the British food consultant, said.
"Unfortunately," he said, "we've educated our customers to expect cheap food, that they can go to the market to get whatever they want, whenever they want it. All year. 24/7."