Mar 2007

Food miles. More complicated than you may think.

For me, food miles have become the single biggest factor when I do my weekly shop. They over-ride pretty much all other considerations these days. “Nothing from outside Europe” is the basic rule… broken only very rarely for certain tropical fruit. Usually in a fit of “Goddamn it! Mango is my favourite food! We’re all going to die someday and I’m denying myself my favourite food! It’s right there in front of me, for a price I can afford. I’m surrounded by people buying apples flown in from Chile despite the fact that they’re on a shelf next to some Irish ones and I’m denying myself a single mango. I’m a frakking hair-shirted weirdo! That’s it! I’m buying one!”

And yes, I do use that many exclamation marks when I’m thinking about it.

But by and large I spend time making sure that everything I buy is sourced from as close to me as is possible. I vividly recall standing in the supermarket one afternoon and pointing out to the woman next to me that she was buying Chilean apples rather than Irish ones. I’ll never forget the look of contempt I got… “I’ll buy what I want!” she insisted in brittle tones. There’s a part of me convinced that she now goes out of her way to buy food from the furthest flung corners of the earth just to spite me. She had that kind of look in her eyes and a terrible hiss in her voice.

It’s a little disheartening to say the least; the thought that my watchful attitude towards food miles is now merely balancing out the damage done by saying, “Excuse me, but did you realise that by choosing the Irish apples you’d be doing your part to combat Climate Change?” in as friendly a voice as serious ol’ me is capable.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as “Buy homegrown. Save the planet. Everyone lives happily ever after.” Because nothing’s ever that simple. Well, almost nothing. In fact it’s questionable as to whether it’s even possible any more. Can Europe grow enough food to support its population? According to the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), for example, it most certainly can’t. They claim that Western Europe’s arable land is only capable of carrying approximately a third of our current population at “present lifestyle”. This number increases to two thirds if we reduce our levels of consumption to what OPT describes as a “modest lifestyle”.

You can download the Excel Spreadsheet containing detailed global numbers, but for a brief flavour of OPT’s calculations; with zero food imports, the UK has a ‘present lifestyle’ carrying capacity of less than one third its current population. Belgium and Luxembourg; one tenth. France; a half. Germany; a quarter. Holland; one eighth. And so on.

The only Western European nations that come even close to being able to support their own populations at current levels of consumption are Finland, Ireland and Sweden. If you reduce consumption to modest levels, you can add Norway and Denmark to that list. The implications are clear… unless Europe reduces its population significantly, it will need to continue to import large amounts of food from Africa and elsewhere just to prevent starvation (note: this is even if we restrict our consumption to sensible / modest levels).

And that’s not the end of the story either. Hypothetically, what if Western Europe was suddenly capable of supporting the current population? Would we find ourselves in the “Buy homegrown. Save the planet. Everyone lives happily ever after.” situation? Sadly not. As this post over at worldchanging (via Gyrus) makes clear, Western Europe’s voracious appetite has led to a large number of poorer nations retooling their entire economy to function as an extension of European arable land. Huge areas of Kenya, for instance, are devoted to growing salad vegetables for European tables. If that market disappears, it will result in significant problems for Kenyan farmers.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that’s a good enough reason for us to be flying mange-tout and sugar-snap peas up from the equator. Frankly when you realise that amongst the nations bordering Kenya are three (Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia) which suffer regular devastating famines, the fact that Kenya is growing baby corn for our salads instead of regular corn to prevent local starvation becomes rather sinister. We all know the old cliché that famine is not a result of food shortages, but is instead a consequence of inequitable distribution and political corruption. Nonetheless, how many of us are aware of our own culpability in this inequity when we buy Kenyan vegetables?

God bless the market, eh? We in Europe can currently pay more to a Kenyan farmer to airlift fresh salad on to our table than an Ethiopian can pay the same farmer — his or her neighbour — to put staple food items on to theirs. As Tim Worstall (blogging economist) so eloquently put it, “Making money from customers is what businesses do, it is the very reason for their existence.” Market capitalism ensures that agriculture is a business like any other. It does not exist to feed the hungry, it exists to generate profit. Market economists see this as a good thing.

I don’t, needless to say. But as I’ve already illustrated, there is no easy solution here. Europe simply cannot grow enough food to feed itself. We could reduce our consumption significantly and still not have enough land. That said, I would nonetheless urge Kenyan farmers to restructure their economy, accept the pay cut, and start to feed their neighbours. Our inability to feed ourselves is our problem, and leaving hundreds of thousands of nameless black people to starve half a world away is not an ethical solution to that problem*.

For now, I shall continue to support Irish farmers 100% (OK, 99.9%… I’ll still buy the occasional mango). And as transportation fuel becomes less abundant, driving the price of imported food ever upwards, it will become easier to do so. But Europe will soon need to face up to this problem of how we feed our massive population. And between peak oil and climate change, it seems unlikely that using Africa and South America as our personal gardens will be an option for very much longer.

* A first, small, step towards an ethical solution, of course, might be to stop dumping so much food into landfills.

Posted in: Opinion