Sunday, April 27, 2008

Globalized Food Market Saves Cash, Costs Pollution

Consumers around the world are used to having all kinds of food, at any time of the year for cheap. This is not natural. That does not mean it's bad. But that does mean it's probably not free.

Actually, regarding your pocket book, so far it pretty much is. "Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed," reports the NY Times in a recent article, "
Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World."

About three percent of food industry carbon emissions come from transportation, reports the Times. The food industry transports food to keep produce bins stocked year-round and to take advantage of cheap labor. For example, the UK (and other countries for sure) import grapes from South Africa and squash from Italy in the winter. The UK also goes to places like Morocco and Egypt for tomatoes and salad greens instead of Spain since labor costs are lower.

These examples seem pretty reasonable. But there are others that are pretty bizarre. For example, cod from the coasts of Norway is shipped to China for filleting, then shipped back to Norway grocers for sale. In the fight against pollution and global warming, shouldn't we be cutting as many of these corners as possible?

One solution that wouldn't make much sense is rearranging the "longstanding trade agreements" mentioned earlier. Chances are, governments will never agree to a single, simple, across-the-board solution. They'll fight. They'll pound their chests. They'll simply get up and walk away from the table. Thus, you'll end up with what the NY Times refers to as "an uneven patchwork of fuel taxes" leaving "countries that kept the exemption a huge trade advantage."

Another solution that could (probably not) work is taking the decision to consumers. That's the idea behind a soon-to-be-launched "green" food labeling system at Tesco, the UK's largest grocery chain. The new labels will indicate how far food has traveled to make it to the store and how much carbon was emitted to create it.

Interestingly enough, not all supermarket items that are shipped long distances are worse for the environment than local stuff. For example, tropical flowers. The carbon footprint is smaller if you ship them from the tropics instead of growing them in "energy-hungry" greenhouses.

But that shouldn't make a consumer feel much better. Maybe tropical flowers outside of the tropics are simply a bad idea. When it comes to pollution, smaller isn't better when it's compared to zero.

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.