A green wall? Kenya, organics, and “food miles”

Stephen Browne Alexander Kasterine
25 January 2008

A rising concern with personal and environmental health in the world's richer countries is influencing lifestyles and public debate alike. One significant trend is the increase in the consumption of organically grown produce - a significant proportion of which is imported. International trade in organic food and beverages currently has a value of more than £15 billion ($30 billion) per year; the United States, Britain and Germany account for two-thirds of imports.

Stephen Browne is deputy executive director and director of operations at the International Trade Centre (ITC), Geneva. He is the author of Aid and Influence: Do Donors Help or Hinder? (Earthscan, 2006)

Also by Stephen Browne in openDemocracy:

"G8 aid: beyond the target trap" (6 June 2007)

"Whatever happened to 'development'?" (17 April 2007)The effect of this trade on developing countries is considerable. As tastes have become more exotic and consumers have increasingly sought out year-round availability of food (particularly fruit and vegetables), exports from the global south have grown appreciably. The British market, where the proportion of organic imports is the highest in Europe for certain items, sources a significant portion of its fresh organic produce from Africa; 70% of the green beans grown in Kenya, for example, was sent to Britain in 2007. More than a million African farmers are estimated to benefit from this trade, and many livelihoods depend on its continuation.

The advantages of this trading cycle are evident. But - like many other promising developing-country export opportunities - "organics" are under threat. This time, however, the obstacle is not just events such as Kenya's post-election turmoil, but arguments by people who in many cases are motivated by the same environmental considerations that lead them to prefer organics in the first place.

The heart of the issue is "food miles". Many European consumers believe - and are informed as such by environmental groups - that the further a product has to travel, the greater must be the overall carbon emissions involved; and that this is especially so if imports come by air rather than overland, as in the case of the more perishable imported fruit and vegetables.

The issue is regarded as serious enough for Britain's principal organic certification organisation, the Soil Association, to consider stopping the certification of all produce arriving in the country by air (for news of an "air-freight summit" convened by the Soil Association in July 2007, click here). The equivalent bodies in continental Europe are contemplating a similar decision.

The wrong target

Among openDemocracy's articles on trade, aid and development in Africa:

Kevin Watkins, Jean-Pierre Lehmann, "World trade, poverty and the environment in the age of global governance" (11 June 2002)

Camilla Toulmin, "Africa: make climate change history" (16 May 2005)

Richard Burge, "Africa, Europe, and carbon credits: a proposal" (28 June 2005)

Paul Collier, "The aid evasion: raising the ‘bottom billion'" (11 June 2007)

Paul Collier & Kalypso Nicolaïdis, "Europe, Africa and EPAs: opportunity or car-crash?" (7 January 2007)
The concern over carbon emissions is legitimate. But the "food miles" (or "air-miles") argument has three flaws. First, the total carbon emissions associated with the import of organic foods is very small - even tiny - so a halt to certification would have almost zero practical effect.

Second, local transport (especially on European roads) is a major source of carbon emissions, in addition to the costs of congestion and accidents; this includes the vehicles of shoppers (including consumers of organic foods). The combined effect here far outstrips the airfreight emissions of - for example - beans from Kenyan farmers tightly packed into the hold of a plane.

Third, the estimate of carbon emissions should take into account the entire production chain. It may be intuitive to think that distance travelled is an indicator for environmental damage, but other indicators must be factored in to an analysis: the lower-energy intensity of production in the tropics and southern hemisphere, for example.

European farmers, in a colder continent with shorter growing seasons, have higher energy costs than their African counterparts. Britain's farmers alone receive about £2.8 billion per year in subsidies, which are used to purchase fuel, electricity and gas; African farmers receive little or no subsidies, and their production is much less carbon-intensive. Moreover, the stage "from farm to fork" entails food preparation in European homes, which again may entail an energy-rich process.

From a global perspective, therefore, food imported from Africa is not less sustainable than food produced locally in the rich countries. But the momentum behind the food-miles argument creates a danger of a restriction in imports of food and vegetables from Africa's poorer countries - as well as those of other continents - which will undermine the livelihoods of many thousands of farmers (some, as in Kenya, already very hard-pressed). This, at the very time when the world is recognising the advantages of trade over traditional forms of aid, would make developmental nonsense.

The Geneva-based International Trade Centre ITC has commissioned research into the environmental and economic impact of the trade in organic produce. In focusing in particular on the circumstances of organic farmers in Kenya and Ghana, the ITC has found that the consequences of a ban would include a precipitous decline in living standards among many people in sub-Saharan Africa, for whom alternative employment opportunities are scarce. There would also be a loss of the carbon-sequestration function and other environmental benefits of organic farming.

Global warming is a universal concern (with a strong African dimension too), and carbon emissions merit growing vigilance. But a global problem demands global solutions. Trade policy can be used to set the right incentives for sustainable development. But focusing too narrowly on long-distance transportation of organic produce is false economy: bad for the environment and bad for development.

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