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From gate to plate

These days people in developed countries have access to a huge variety of foodstuffs, irrespective of the seasons. Consumers expect, even demand, to choose from a huge variety of produce when they visit the supermarket. However, with growing concern over our increasing “carbon footprint”1 there is now more awareness of food miles, i.e., the measure of the distance a food travels from field to plate. Food travels much further today than in the past because of the global market place; even food which can be produced locally, such as potatoes, apples and milk, may be sourced and transported across the oceans of the world, and some high value products are air-freighted. With centralised distribution warehouse and cold store systems food is transported from field to a central depot to be packaged and re-sent on a journey uninhibited by distance. Nevertheless, the means of transport, as well as the distance travelled, is an important consideration: for example, it is thought that transport by boat has less of an environmental impact than transportation by air and road. Animal welfare is also an issue in the transportation of live animals to centralised abattoirs and meat processing plants.

Modern food manufacture and distribution is both complex and energy inefficient, as illustrated by a study carried out by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology which: “…considered the production of inputs to agriculture, tomato cultivation and conversion to tomato paste in Italy, the processing and packaging of the paste and other ingredients into tomato ketchup in Sweden, and the retail and storage of the final product. All this involved more than fifty-two transport and process stages. The aseptic bags used to package the tomato paste were produced in the Netherlands and transported to Italy to be filled, placed in steel barrels, then moved to Sweden. The five-layered red bottles were either produced in the UK or Sweden with materials from Japan, Italy, Belgium, the USA and Denmark. The screw-cap of the bottle and the plug were produced in Denmark and transported to Sweden. Cardboard boxes which were used to distribute the final product, and labels, glue and ink were not included in this analysis.” 2.

It was recently reported that the Soil Association, Britain’s leading organic food certifying body, is proposing that air-freighted goods should be stripped of their organic status. There is a view that there is no necessity for British consumers to eat fragile fruits and vegetables that have been transported from thousands of miles away. However, there is the contrary view that the total energy use in food production should be considered, not just food miles. Thus, it has been calculated that in the case of dairy and sheepmeat production New Zealand is far more energy efficient, even including the transport cost, than the UK, because New Zealand agriculture has outside grass grazing all year round, which requires less energy consumption in the production of fertilizers and feed concentrates. In another recent study by Cranfield University, it has been calculated that growing roses in Kenya and air-freighting them to Europe uses less carbon than if the flowers were grown in Holland, with its high energy costs and cold climate. 3.

The sheer complexity of the world food trade and the role of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was brought into sharp focus by the collapse of the world trade talks earlier this year.The WTO, with 151 member countries, is the only international agency overseeing the rules of international trade. Naturally, a significant proportion of this trade is in agricultural products of all kinds, including foodstuffs. One of the major difficulties that the WTO has so far been unable to solve is that rich countries and trading blocs can afford to support their farmers in various ways, including subsidies and import tariffs, while at the same time making onerous demands on poorer countries to lower their barriers to agricultural imports. For example, in the past, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has attracted much criticism for the way in which it subsidises production. However, there are signs of movement: in 2003, EU farm ministers adopted a fundamental reform of the CAP, with new single farm payments linked to the respect of environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards. According to the European Commission website, “Severing the link between subsidies and production will make EU farmers more competitive and market orientated, while providing the necessary income stability. More money will be available to farmers for environmental, quality or animal welfare programmes by reducing direct payments for bigger farms”. 4What makes this a particularly sensitive issue is the fact that agriculture usually composes a much larger part of the economies of developing countries than of rich countries. Current negotiations at the WTO headquarters in Geneva are focusing on efforts to achieve significant farm tariff reductions on the part of the USA and the EU.

Yet, our individual responsibility for decisions made about food cannot simply be passed on to the WTO and EU. Consumers also generate food miles - shopping by car at out-of-town supermarkets has replaced the local shop, although local farmers markets, farm shops, and box schemes are making an impact in some areas. Consideration of food miles must also include the disposal of food and packaging to landfill or recycling. Another way to minimise environmental impact is for people to grow their own food in gardens and allotments. Seasonality is also an issue, because fresh vegetables from local producers can be more nutritious than frozen produce. A philosophical development in line with these observations that has emerged in recent years is the bioregionalist perspective. As defined by Peter Berg, Director of the Planet Drum Foundation (www.planetdrum.org), and Raymond Dasmann, wildlife ecologist, bioregions are “…geographic areas having common characteristics of soil, watershed, climate, native plants and animals that exist within the whole planetary biosphere as unique and intrinsic contributive parts. A bioregion refers both to geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness – to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place. A bioregion can be determined initially by use of climatology, physiography, animal and plant geography, natural history and other descriptive natural sciences. The final boundaries of a bioregion, however, are best described by the people who have lived within it, through human recognition of the realities of living-in-place. There is a distinctive resonance among living things and the factors that influence them which occurs specifically within each separate place on the planet. Discovering and describing that resonance is a way to describe a bioregion.” 5 And becoming aware of this resonance, wherever one lives, is a major way of awakening to the wider issue of the global flow of food, which is itself only a part of one of the major issues of our time – how do we come into right relationship with the other kingdoms of nature?

1. The total amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service.

2. “Eating Oil” by Andy Jones, Resurgence 216 Jan/Feb 2003.

3. Study quoted in The Observer, Sunday July 15 2007, http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2126614,00.html

4. http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/capreform/index_en.htm

5. http://home.klis.com/~chebogue/p.amBio.html