Politicians and consumers could harm poorer nations with token reactions to 'food miles' concerns

News, 16 January 2007

A meeting organised the UK opposition Conservative Party today (16 January) will hear how tokenistic policy and consumer responses to concerns about 'food miles' could undermine the social and economic development of African countries.

Bill Vorley of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) will present new research that shows that the greenhouse gases emitted when fresh vegetables are flown from Africa to the UK are a tiny fraction of Britain’s overall emissions.

He will tell the meeting that the media has a key role to play in ensuring that policymakers do not make knee-jerk reactions to concerns over these emissions, because the trade in question is of critical importance to African development.

Vorley will point out that that although airfreight is very problematic from a climate-change perspective, it must be put into context of the overall 'environmental footprint' of the whole UK food system. This has both domestic and international elements, some of which — such as clearing Amazon forests to grow soy to feed 'produced in UK' livestock — are usually hidden.

The meeting will focus on links between trade and climate change. It is being held by the Globalisation and Global Poverty Group — set up by Conservative Party leader David Cameron to recommend policies to promote economic development in the developing world.

At last week's Oxford Farming Conference, Cameron urged UK consumers to adopt 'food patriotism'— preferentially buying food produced in Britain. At the same meeting, Labour's environment secretary David Miliband predicted economic penalties linked to 'food miles' — a measure of the distance produce travels from farm to plate.

"'Food miles' is a valuable concept, and one that could rightly drive some re-localisation of our food system," says Vorley. "But politicians and the public need to think more about 'fair miles', which means thinking how and where food is produced and not just the distance it has travelled. The media needs to report on this important issue in greater depth to improve public understanding of the trade-offs involved."

Much attention is being focused on how vegetables and flowers imported by air from Africa cause greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. But cutting this trade specifically could have an overall negative impact on African development, says Vorley, who is the head of IIED’s Sustainable Markets Group.

"Export horticulture is one of the few genuine opportunities to bring direct and indirect benefits to the rural poor in developing countries," says Vorley. "Air freight is currently the only possible mode of transport from most of Africa for highly perishable produce. More than one million people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on this trade for their livelihoods."

"Airfreight of fresh fruits and vegetables from sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 0.1% of total UK carbon emissions," says Vorley. "Far greater emissions result from the domestic transport of food goods within the country. The UK must first look to the huge impacts of our food system at home, before pulling up the ladder on Africa."

"Small scale farmers have overcome the tremendous challenges of meeting the exacting standards of UK supermarkets and consumers, and are producing top quality vegetables," he adds. "Getting these farmers into these high value markets brings them social and economic benefits in line with UK government objectives of 'making markets work for the poor'. Are we now going to penalise them with our environmental policy? It just doesn’t seem like joined-up government."

"A boycott of products such as Kenyan beans would do little to mitigate climate change but would be disastrous for many poor African farmers," says Vorley. "Climate change is going to affect the poor in Africa harder than anyone else. These are the people who have done least to cause the problem. They shouldn't be made to pay the cost of fixing it too."

"Food miles are important but they should not be used to disconnect UK consumers from poor people in other parts of the world," says Vorley. "In fact, there are not enough of those connections, which play an important role in alleviating poverty. UK consumers should focus their behaviour change on the remaining 99.9% of their climate-change footprint, by reducing things such as energy use and leisure flights."

The Kyoto Protocol recognises the need for equity and economic development for developing countries. For those nations that currently produce very few emissions, there exists a potential to use some to reduce poverty, foster development and move towards a low-carbon future.

Currently, per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the UK are 9.2 tonnes. For Kenya, the figure is 0.2 tonnes, and for Uganda 0.1 tonnes.

According to calculations of a sustainable carbon future, each citizen would only have the ecological 'space' to generate 1.8 tonnes. This shows that while the West needs to greatly cut emissions, African nations should be able to choose carbon-emitting pathways out of poverty.

"The UK needs joined-up policies on food and climate-change that take into account environmental and social considerations, both domestically and internationally," says Vorley. "That means making markets work for the poor, as well as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One-planet living implies solidarity with poor people, not turning our backs on them. Especially as we in the UK are among the world’s top energy guzzlers."

Kath Dalmeny of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming says: "The boom in sales of local, organic and fair-trade products shows that increasing numbers of consumers want food that is both ethical and better for the environment - the two go hand in hand."

"We can support sustainable farming at home, whilst also buying produce from some of the poorest countries in the world - and demanding that supermarkets pay a fair price for that produce," she adds. "The point is that we can no longer ignore the social and environmental effects of our food choices - we should use our shopping to build the world that we want."

Bill Vorley and James MacGregor of IIED's Sustainable Markets Group are available for interview.

Two-page briefing by Vorley and MacGregor

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Mike Shanahan
Press Officer
International Institute for Environment and Development
Email: mike.shanahan@iied.org
Tel: +44 (0)20 7872 7308
Fax: +44 (0)20 7388 2826
http://www.iied.org

NOTES TO EDITORS

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see: http://www.iied.org).

IIED research funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) shows that the fruit and vegetable trade is worth £200 million (US$386 million) to sub-Saharan Africa at import. Excluding South Africa, export horticulture employs directly over 50,000 smallholders and 60,000 employees on larger farms in sub-Saharan Africa, with further indirect employment in services and supply industries. IIED estimates that over one million African rural livelihoods are supported in part through UK consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Globalisation and Global Poverty Group's meeting on 'TRADE IN A CHANGING CLIMATE' takes place on 16 January at 9am-12.30pm at the Royal Society of Arts. See: http://tinyurl.com/y8xpe4

Contact

Mike Shanahan
Press Officer
International Institute for Environment and Development
Email: mike.shanahan@iied.org
Tel: +44 (0)20 7872 7256
Fax: +44 (0)20 7388 2826
http://www.iied.org

Notes to editors

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see: http://www.iied.org).

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