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Misperceptions Of Food Miles
Affect Countries Like Kenya Hardest

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 21, 2007

We have written many times about “food miles”, including here, here, here and here, plus most recently, we addressed the issue of the Soil Association in the United Kingdom and its idea to restrict air-freighted produce from being marketed as organic.

We’ve also dealt both here and here with the notion that air freight of fresh produce is a particularly pernicious contributor to global warming and the penchant of certain UK supermarkets to place a “Mark of Cain” upon each air-freighted package in the form of an airplane symbol.

There are at least two immediately obvious problems with both food miles and the anti-airfreight movement:

First, plucking out any particular link in the supply chain is inherently meaningless. Even if it is true that air freight and/or distance were substantial contributors to carbon output, that tells us nothing. Perhaps all that transport via air is needed to get product from a particularly environmentally beneficial place of production. In this case, the extra carbon output used in transport would have to be weighed against the reduction in carbon output resulting from more environmentally efficient production.

Second, even if it was established — which it has not been — that product air-freighted in or product from far away did result in higher carbon output than locally grown product, that hardly seems determinative. Even if we assume that reducing carbon output is something we value — surely it is not the ONLY thing we value. Developing countries often depend on the export of agricultural products to sustain people. Are these people simply to be dispensed with to obtain some hypothetical slowdown on global warming?

In the United Kingdom, where many of these issues have been prominently percolating, Africa is a source for substantial amounts of fresh produce and floral products. Kenya, of course, has long historical links to the United Kingdom, and its ambassador in London has been outspoken on both the food miles and air freight issues.

In the United States, though, most of what we read of these issues comes from British media, so we thought that to learn more we would want to speak to the Kenyans directly. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to see what we could learn.

Abraham Barno
Agricultural Attache
Kenya High Commission
London, United Kingdom
Michael Mandu
Trade Officer
Kenya High Commission
London, United Kingdom

Q: How is the issue of food miles impacting Kenya?

BARNO: This matter came up very strongly when certain UK supermarkets decided to enforce labeling and cap imports on the basis of food miles. We are seeing this action as an affront to Kenyan farmers because 90 percent of our agriculture exports are to the United Kingdom, and our fresh produce is delivered by air. Hearing this, we had to take action.

The concept of food miles is a simplistic idea. It doesn’t show the true qualities of CO2 influencing the environment. It ignores numerous factors, such as farming methods, transportation between supermarkets and households buying, and greenhouse gas emissions. We needed a lifecycle analysis, a fair measure to reflect better the truth of food product life.

Q: When and why did this food miles labeling start?

BARNO: Tesco, [as part of its green initiatives here] released the measure last winter. The effective start date of labeling was in February. We thought this matter was going to get out of hand. Consumers were being given false information. Food miles labeling is a marketing strategy. Supermarkets in the United Kingdom are competing on being the greenest on High Street, and using food miles as the test to show it. Facts about food miles are being manipulated and used as a marketing tool.

In actuality, Kenyan farmers are being misrepresented and the consumers at these stores are not being told the true virtues of our products. The intention of these supermarkets is to put airplane stickers on all air-freighted products, not just from Kenya, but from all over the world. We are seeing countries like Guyana speaking up, but we’ve been the leading voice.

Kenya, being a small developing country, plays an important role in international trade. We thought this was not right. Surely we have concerns about the environment and use the cleanest growing practices, which produce far less carbon emissions than many Western farming methods. Locally grown produce is not always more environmentally friendly, according to a DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, UK] report. It estimated that air-freighting from Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for .1 percent of the UK’s total carbon emissions, while around 65 percent of emissions relating to food are caused by transportation within Britain. These issues need to be examined in a larger context. We need to show how we can provide a competitive advantage.

Q: What efforts have you made to turn around these perceptions?

BARNO: We wrote to DEFRA, the United Kingdom equivalent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The secretary of DEFRA heard our concerns and spoke to the UK minister of environment and climate change. When UK supermarkets heard we were making noise with those in power, they expressed a concern and we used the opportunity to set up meetings. We had a long conversation with Tesco independently, and then with Marks & Spencer [Read about its “Plan A” climate/green initiatives here].

Q: Were the meetings productive? What was the retail reasoning behind the food miles labeling?

BARNO: They said it was their duty to respond to the concerns of their consumers who were saying they should do something about climate change. They thought they needed to address air freight, which emit higher CO2, and they wanted to be seen to be taking action.

Our argument on the other side was that this is like targeting a developing country, which exports fresh produce mostly by air. It is not right to punish us. In any case, our product travels via cargo in the bellies of passenger airplanes. You could not apportion CO2 from passengers and the cargo it’s carrying. This is a very difficult way to look at the problem. In most instances, these planes are carrying tourists from the UK!

MANDU: Even if we remove fresh produce exported to the UK by air, it won’t affect CO2 emissions because the planes are flying anyway. Airplane sizes are increasing as well as the number of flights.

BARNO: The other part of the story is that this is the only product segment we are able to produce competitively. This is very high quality product. Why can’t we be given our fair chance? We offer quite a selection of fresh produce. In vegetables, mainly French beans, snap peas, and most Asian varieties. In flowers, mainly roses, most used in bouquets.

In the first instance, the UK didn’t look at trade obligations between countries. In Africa we have a comparative advantage with agriculture products. The UK is selling mobile phones and machinery, which are produced by using carbon technologies, mainly fossil fuels since no other technologies are readily available.

There is the potential of bringing in a trade dispute under WTO, discriminating against a product, a non-tariff barrier to trade. They need to know they are affecting these kinds of things with the policies they want to enforce.

The market for fresh produce in Kenya was created to serve the demand in Europe. We have invested heavily in supporting that market. Who will pay for the investments we have made already?

The supply and demand has fueled a lot of investments particularly for flowers and some of these other products I’ve mentioned.

Q: Have you done reports to quantify the financial impact?

BARNO: We export close to 700 million U.S. dollars, so we have a lot to lose. Since the introduction of airplane stickers, our initial reports show very little impact on consumer behavior. There is not substantive evidence of change in demand or buying habits at this point, but that could change. Indications are that consumers are taking notice. The stickers have only been on products a few months.

We don’t have the facts clear on why there is not much impact. It could just be a time issue, since the labeling is so new. The labels connote different meanings to consumers. In one instance, the airplane icon shows the product has been flown in as opposed to shipped in, which indicates freshness. Most consumers are aware of high carbon footprints and feel a need to do something to reduce the problem. However, certain times of the year, and depending on the commodity, product might not be available locally.

MANDU: The majority of consumers are concerned about spending. They don’t have the luxury to analyze the meaning of an airplane sticker. And in the end, even if consumers like the idea of buying locally, their pocketbooks sway them to the better value. Our fear is a ban on Kenyan produce into the UK market as the Soil Association and other food miles lobbyists push harder. If the product isn’t on the shelves, consumers can’t buy it.

BARNO: In our meetings with the supermarket executives, they agreed to monitor the impact of the airplane stickers and to communicate the food story of Kenyan produce to consumers.

We come from a developing country with an impoverished population that desperately needs the opportunity to find employment and earn an income for basic living expenses and to afford to take their children to school. Agriculture is the fastest growing sector, with 105,000 jobs in the export sector alone. These are real people trying to provide for their extended families. The average family consists of six people plus four dependents, which comes to approximately one million people directly or indirectly affected in this sector.

Q: Some critics question whether the majority of financial benefits accrued from exporting Kenyan agricultural products actually trickle down to the impoverished workers.

BARNO: There is a lot of feeling that the companies mainly producing for export are foreign, coming from Europe for example, but this is a misconception. Investors create jobs and wages for workers. They must comply with codes of practices based on living wages and good social accountability. We believe they are delivering the benefits, providing jobs, helping in economic growth, and making a difference to the population.

Q: The Soil Association recently initiated a new caveat that air-freighted organic produce must adhere to stricter “ethical” policies in order to be accredited and sold in the UK. What is your response?

MANDU: Issues with food miles are becoming more complicated. It looks like the Soil Association is integrating food miles into fair trade. From its report, it also is looking at ethical practices, another topic all together. They are trying to muddy the waters and create more issues by examining living conditions of farmers at home, how much they earn from produce and access to health and education facilities.

The Soil Association can’t finish one fight before starting another one. They saw prominent UK officials were on the side of Kenyan farmers, in promoting trade with countries coming out of poverty. We had meetings with government officials that said this negative impact on Kenyan farmers in the name of food miles was not acceptable.

UK trade and development minister Gareth Thomas asked the Soil Association and supermarkets to be fair in their portrayal of food miles. “Food miles alone or the distance food has traveled is not the best way to judge whether the food we eat is sustainable,” he said. “Driving six-and-a-half miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK,” he argued.

Q: So how are you capitalizing on this newfound support going forward?

MANDU: We’re preparing our replies to the new arguments by the Soil Association with a comprehensive paper for the Ambassador here. In the UK, there are several powerful associations, including energy organizations that look at third world trade favorably, and their support can drive us. We’ve also talked to the Commonwealth secretariat in London. They did a proposal to commission a study in CO2 emissions comparing production methods in Kenya and the UK. That gives us evidence to fight back, to counteract food mile lobbyists with facts and figures.

We want to commission more studies on CO2s, advanced by the UK government. We need to do analyses from the time seeds are being prepared, to planted, harvested, and packaged before freight, and then compare to greenhouses in Holland and other production areas such as Spain and Portugal. We haven’t done comprehensive studies. That would be the way to make an accurate assessment. But now the Soil Association is jumping to other issues with ethical farming to divert attention from the progress we’ve made.

BARNO: We think our efforts are already making a difference. In our meetings with supermarket executives, there was acknowledgement that air-freighted product could actually be environmentally cleaner than they originally thought, and a remark to this effect came from none other than the CEO of Tesco.

Several diverse and prominent organizations have pointed to problematic issues related to food miles, including The International Trade Center in Geneva. A study by Cranfield University in the UK did a comparative analysis of the impact of carbon emissions for roses produced and exported from Kenya versus the Netherlands. It found that Kenyan exports including airfreight were actually six times more carbon efficient than by the Netherlands-grown process, and the heating requirements of putting product in greenhouses. [Editors Note: The study was commissioned by World Flowers. Sainsbury’s chief executive officer Justin King has taken a stand against labeling products with air-freighted stickers, questioning the logic].

So clearly, we would like the consumers to look at food miles as a kind of marketing gimmick that does not hold water, denies people product diversity and at the same time quality, tropical vegetables that are grown with less fertilizer. The sunshine alone is enough to give it the food requirements with not necessarily putting in non-organic fertilizers.

With regards to products from Africa, we strive to produce healthy, safe and quality product with Good Agricultural Practices. We believe this is good for business and we should not be punished.

The Co-operative Group, currently farming over 70,000 acres in England and Scotland, is about buying local, which supports the food miles concept, but it is candid about supermarkets not using the airplane and has come out strongly against food miles.

ASDA has not put air-freighted stickers on its packaging. Because of the campaign going on they seem to be rethinking this strategy.

Everyone is concerned about global warming. Some use it to appeal to the whims of the moment. People are passionate about taking action, and the corporate world uses it as an opportunity to push product for their own gain, rather than directly effecting change. The food miles concept is not true. These things are being debated, people are taking action, and we are seeing some results. This is good engagement. Consumers must see the whole story.

The message we want to get across is that this product is not just good quality, but that buying it will help people with no other way to sustain survival. We agreed with the supermarkets that we will tell the good story of what Kenyan products are doing to improve the economy of developing countries.

We are working together with supermarkets now to promote this message. They have agreed in principle to communicate the good product attributes and socioeconomic aspects of buying produce from Kenya. Particularly, at Marks & Spencer, Mike Barry, head of corporate social responsibility, has expressed a desire to disseminate this message to its customers.

MANDU: We hope if we put heads together and find common ground, we can fight and win this war.

Kenya is far away, and there is not much produce trade between the U.S. and Kenya, so it is easy to dismiss this as someone else’s battle.

Yet, history works in strange ways, and in so many ways, the battle the Kenyans fight is our own.

First, it is a fight for rationality. A fight for the great western gift bequeathed us by the Greeks: Logos — a word Aristotle used to mean an argument from reason. The story Mr. Barno and Mr. Mandu tell us about the Soil Association is apt:

They are trying to muddy the waters and create more issues by examining living conditions of farmers at home, how much they earn from produce and access to health and education facilities.

The Soil Association can’t finish one fight before starting another one.

This changing of the subject is a function of the fact that the Soil Association and the elites influencing the media on these subjects are not interested in finding the truth. They are not engaged in a search for accuracy. They care not for “an argument from reason”; instead they look to “soil” our intellectual heritage by attempting to “muddy the waters” to make the logic of the situation less clear.

Second, it is a fight for freedom, the freedom of British consumers to select from the world’s goods, the freedom of Kenyans to pursue happiness by attempting to sell goods in the UK. This is about elites in the UK — and around the world — who would like to dictate what people can do. They find capitalism, with the enormous latitude it gives for individual choice, to be highly frustrating.

For the truth is that we have a very accurate mechanism for judging the relative benefit of production of product in different places… it is called the pricing mechanism. Built into that price is the cost of the entire supply chain. Perhaps we may want to consider a carbon tax to compensate for any externalities. A carbon tax, however, would fall on everyone and allow free people to adjust as they have to. This means that the real motivation of the advocates of penalizing food miles and air freight, which is to bend the world in the direction these self-interested parties or opinionated elites would prefer, will not happen. Instead people would reduce carbon emissions in ways that they elect to do so.

At the root of what Mr. Mando aptly terms a war is a cultural rift. This whole matter is driven by a combination of protectionism, Luddite anti-industrialism and a hatred of capitalism and human freedom. It is not so much that people oppose air-freighting produce half way across the world because it might contribute to global warming. It is that they seize upon global warming as an excuse to seize control and oppose what they opposed in any case — an entrepreneurial, free-trading, free-thinking world.

We write this piece just as we ready ourselves to join family and friends to celebrate the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The way in which the interests of the Kenyans and other developing countries have been so easily dismissed in the U.K. serves as a reminder of how much Americans have to be thankful for.

As smart and hard working as any of us might be, it was the wisdom and good fortune of our ancestors who traveled to America that gave us the most fantastic gift a child can be given, to grow up in a place that offers an extraordinary opportunity to realize one’s own gifts.

And how strange and wonderful that we should have friends like the Kenyans to man the barricades for all we hold dear.

As we sit down for Thanksgiving, let us make it about more than football, turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. Let us count our blessings for living in a place so blessed.

Thanks to Messrs Barno and Mando for fighting the good fight. Let us hope they manage to keep the opportunity alive for people who desperately need it.

A Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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