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Carbon Footprinting Gone Wild!

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 25, 2007

Everyone who is doing business with British supermarkets is getting inquiries about the “carbon footprint” their products impose on the environment.

In France, the French division of the World Wildlife Fund has come out with a report purporting to measure CO2 emissions used in the production and transport of various fresh produce items:

But figures released this week by the French division of the World Wildlife Fund show the difference in CO2 emissions among produce delivered to Paris from a variety of sources.

One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of green beans from Provence in France costs 64 grams in CO2 emissions. Sourced in Andalucia, Spain, the figure rises to 128 grams. Flown in 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) from Kenya, emissions rocket to 3,948 grams per kilo of green beans.

Cherries driven from the Loire district in central France cost 67 grams, from Catalonia in Spain 134 grams, and flown from Chile, 1,052 grams.

It is hard to know where to begin in critiquing efforts such as this. But let us look at one example:

Transportation, which accounts for a large part of the carbon footprint, is very complicated. When interest rates zoomed many years ago, my family was approached by a man who had a contract to fly the most expensive European luxury automobiles to the U.S.A.

Basically, with the cost of money very high, they had calculated that it paid to fly these cars rather than take less expensive ocean transportation as they could get paid for the cars sooner. The deal was set up, the planes were chartered and flying. It was all paid for, exclusively, by the shipping fee for the cars.

We were approached to see if we had any ability to fill the back haul and were offered very inexpensive rates.

We took advantage of the deal and flew our produce cheaply. It continued for several months, then interest rates dropped, the flights were no longer economical and we were told that the charter was ending and along with it our deal.

Now today Marks and Spencer puts an Aeroplane logo on the product, sort of a scarlet letter, warning everyone they are bad people if they buy this.

The World Wildlife Fund in France will do some calculation of the plane’s emissions and declare it wasteful and dangerous to the world.

Yet, in fact, as the planes were flying anyway, the carbon emissions caused by utilizing these planes was as close to zero as you can get.

This is really why we need capitalism. Capitalism enlists billions of people, all with specific knowledge of different things, and then directs their energies to finding the most efficient ways to do things.

It is pretty well accepted that because these billions of people have knowledge even the most intelligent and benevolent central planning office can simply never have, allowing lots of individual decisions will create a better economic outcome than trying to dictate things.

What is not always recognized is that telling consumers to make buying decisions based on criteria such as that Aeroplane symbol or some calculation of carbon use will backfire for the same reason — insufficient information, in this case, by the consumer.

Knowing something was flown in, knowing the WWF calculation of the CO2 emissions, these types of information are just too limited to tell a consumer anything useful about the environmental impact of a choice.

What would make sense is to push politically for public policies that make sure the price of goods reflect their true cost to society. In other words, you want to make sure that the law does not allow people to pollute for free as this will encourage pollution.

But no consumer can make a useful decision based on any of these blunt tools we seem intent on promoting to consumers. It is as likely to harm the environment as help the environment.

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