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Richard Branson Chimes In On Food Miles

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 5, 2007

As we have warned in numerous pieces, such as Carbon Footprinting Gone Wild!, the movement toward promoting “food miles” as something retailers and consumers are supposed to take into account in purchasing is not merely unlikely to achieve any environmental benefit but, in fact, could cause harms of all different types.

Sir Richard Branson, whose mind has been focused on the issue because he owns an airline that has just inaugurated service between the United Kingdom and Kenya, has apparently come to the same conclusion as the Pundit:

Sir Richard Branson has accused Marks & Spencer of abandoning Africa through its policy of reducing “food miles”.

The billionaire Virgin Atlantic boss said cutting food imports from Africa will leave millions of farmers in poverty while doing little to stop global warming.

He added that moves to reduce imports by air were “stupid” and “a knee-jerk reaction” by firms desperate to appear to be green….

His comments come in the wake of a drive by M&S to cut carbon emissions by bringing less food to the UK by air.

M&S chief executive Stuart Rose recently launched an “ecoplan” involving stocking less food flown in by plane, calling it “plan A — because there is no plan B”.

Sir Richard said: “There are some very stupid things that have been suggested by some people to combat global warming — knee-jerk reactions”.

“What we cannot do is damage a continent like Africa by banning their goods. There’s global warming but there’s also extreme poverty throughout Africa”.

“To get all the children of Africa to go to primary school is very important, and it’s very expensive. Africa needs trade to do that.”

In a thinly veiled attack on M&S, he added: “We must continue to stock African produce. Tesco are, and there should be pressures for others to carry on doing so.”

More than a million people in Africa rely on selling fruit and vegetables to UK shoppers.

Sir Richard is well known as an environmentalist with a major focus on global warming but, in this case, he has decided that the interests of poor Africans are more important than whatever environmental benefit might be derived from a reduction in food miles:

Sir Richard said that tackling global warming was one of the world’s most pressing issues but added that stopping trade with Africa was “a step too far”, adding: “Let the Africans have a chance to have some dignity and have a life.”

We are glad to have Sir Richard with us on this issue but by focusing exclusively on the issue of buying from Africa, he pulls back from the logic of his own positions.

There are three issues here:

  1. CONFLICTING VALUES

    As Sir Richard points out, one can be an environmentalist and still care about poor African people. So one has to choose. Unfortunately, this just happens to be a very dramatic and clear example of a conflict between different values.

    Most of the time the conflict is oblique but no less present. One might think that buying strawberries from “rich” America is not something to worry about. But if those strawberries are picked by poor Mexicans whose remittances keep their families fed, then the impact of one’s decision is still very complicated.
  2. INACCURATE ASSESSMENT OF CARBON FOOTPRINT

    It is also a shame that Sir Richard did not use the occasion to point out that Virgin is launching passenger service from London to Nairobi. Perhaps the people will fly in sufficient quantities and pay sufficient fares that Sir Richard’s airline would fly the route profitably without any cargo

    If so, the contribution to the “carbon footprint” of all those “food miles” between Kenya and England is close to zero.

    In other words, food miles is a simplistic to the point of meaningless concept because it tells us nothing — literally nothing — about the impact on the environment of any given product.

    Distance just doesn’t tell us much.
  3. IGNORANCE OF OTHER FACTORS

    If you are concerned about the environmental impact of a given item, you need to carefully study the efficiency of the entire production system.

    New Zealand is very far away from the U.K., but studies have indicated it is a very efficient producer when it comes to looking at carbon footprints. A country could be closer, but an inefficient producer. To pluck out one and only one fact — the “food miles” — is as likely to lead buyers — trade or consumer — to harm the environment as to help it.
  4. DISTRACTION FROM IMPORTANT ISSUES

    The truth is that commercial transportation by air, sea, rail or truck is pretty efficient because we are moving large quantities at one time.

    What is really inefficient is individual consumers getting in their Range Rovers and driving to pick up a few items for tomorrow. If these well meaning consumers have been told to look to avoid “food miles” and drive 15 minutes out of the way to get some locally grown product at the farmer’s market, they probably emitted more carbon than would have been saved by not transporting things commercially from the furthest reaches of the earth.

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