Monday, March 23, 2009

Food Exports and Carbon Footprints

At a wedding reception last evening I was seated next to a Danish journalist who looked at everything around him with an anthropologist's eye. Is this traditional wedding food? Is using forks and spoons traditional? Are these traditional dresses? Would you traditionally greet me with folded hands or a handshake?
Traditionally, shaking your hand would defile me, I considered saying. It would necessitate a long bath and a few extra prayers.
He told me he specialised in writing on food. Not reviews of new restaurants, but the impact of globalisation on eating habits and the environment. As if on cue, a waiter stopped by our table and offered us kiwifruit juice.
"Ten years ago, one couldn't get kiwifruit in India", I told him, "they only become available after food imports were liberalised".
He asked me where they were grown. I said I wasn't sure.
"New Zealand, perhaps?" he suggested.
"That's what the name indicates, but maybe it's from somewhere closer".
Back home after the reception, I looked it up, and found kiwifruit originated in China. They were was first planted in New Zealand about a hundred years ago by a returning missionary, and named Chinese gooseberries, though they are not berries. In the 1950s, an American company importing the fruit suggested a name change because anything Chinese was suspect in those days, and because there were high tariffs on importing berries. After one or two failed renamings, 'kiwifruit' was settled upon.
The Danish journalist did not like the idea of food travelling great distances before being consumed. He even expressed displeasure at butter cookies being exported out of his home country. I've come across this attitude often enough since the issue of food miles became a hot topic about five years ago. Brits in particular have gone bonkers over the idea that food transportation contributes massively to global warming and responsible individuals, therefore, are duty bound to eat local produce.
Studies published over the past twelve months reveal that the hue and cry over food miles is a lot of ado about nothing much. Christopher Weber and H Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University found that, for American households, 83% of diet-related greenhouse gases were created during the production of food. Only 4% were emitted during the transport of foodstuff from producer to retailer.
Mere facts, of course, aren't going to turn devotees of local food away from a cause that offers them opportunity to feel morally superior.
But consider the Dane for a minute. If he is an average European gent, about 1.5 tons of CO2 will be spewed into the atmosphere to keep him fed for a year. Presuming the Webers-Matthews formula works for Europe, 60 kilos of this will involve shipping and trucking from place of origin to location of sale. Meanwhile, his personal CO2 account has been inflated by 1.5 tons solely as a result of a return flight to Bombay for a friend's wedding.
I am not arguing that food transport ought not to be an issue at all. There's been at least one instance in the past when the lengths the trade will go to shocked me. Eight or nine years ago, on a trip to Delhi on the Rajdhani, the last time I used that relatively environmentally friendly mode to get to the capital, I was in a compartment with three businessmen. One of them peddled Amway, the second was in real estate and the third, a kid, was partnering his uncle in an ice cream operation. The kid outlined his business plan: since tariffs on food products had just been revised downwards, he would import ice-cream from the US and sell it in India. Crazy idea, I said to myself, they'll never get it off the ground. A few months later, at the end of dinner at a friend's home, the host produced a tub of Blue Bunny ice-cream. That was the brand the kid had spoken of.
As we dug into dessert, I said, "Funny, they're actually managing to sell American ice-cream in India."
"Baskin Robbins is American too, that's been here for a while", the host replied.
"No no, Baskin Robbins manufactures ice cream locally, Blue Bunny is made in the US and shipped across in a giant freezer."
The laden spoon the host was directing to his mouth stopped in mid-air. With his other hand he picked up the tub and examined it. A label stuck on it said, Imported Feb 2001, or some date like that. Looking ill, he put the spoon back down. Both he and his wife are very environmentally conscious. In fact, she's recently left her job in software to run an organic food store. I'd just managed to ruin their evening.
Blue Bunny didn't last long in India. Priced at the top end of the market thanks to shipping costs, it never achieved the scale it needed to be viable. I'm happy about that. Food miles skeptic I may be, but I wouldn't buy ice-cream made half-way round the globe.


Anonymous said...

for American households, 83% of diet-related greenhouse gases were created during the production of food

I think that might have a lot to do with the high amount of beef and other such non veg items that the Average american eats.

Girish Shahane said...

The total quantity of emissions certainly has a lot to do with eating large amounts of non vegetarian food, grain-fed beef in particular. I'm not sure if the ratio of production-related to transport-related greenhouse gases would change drastically in a country like India because, while the diet is less meat intensive, there is also far less processing and transport of produce; in other words, emissions due to production as well as due to transport are far lower.
Weber and Matthews did conclude that, from a global warming perspective, the type of food on the plate is much more important than the distance it has travelled to get to the plate.

satish said...

On the 4% vs 83% bit.. I guess its more about doiing your bit in every possible way you can. By the same yardstick, switching off a light bulb in your house doesn't really count because its such an insignificant contribution to the overall cause of reducing carbon footprints.
I don't think one can make a judgement on the relevance of any effort purely by the quantum of savings on emissions.

Girish Shahane said...

Satish, it is true that every little counts. But there's often a trade-off between economic development and an environmentally responsible lifestyle. In the example I gave, the Danish journalist implied that any food exports were to be condemned. If everybody thought like him, and stopped eating food that had travelled, the impact on, say, cocoa farmers in Ghana would be tremendous, but would not, according to the data now available, provide a substantial benefit in the form of reduced carbon emissions.
Your example of bulbs is, I believe, not quite accurate. Changing the bulbs in your house to CFL and keeping them off when possible will reduce the carbon emissions on your personal account significantly.