Weekly Comment

Food miles leave a bitter taste

Related tags Food miles Organic food

The organic food movement has been hijacked by supermarkets intent
on being seen to be green, but their disrespect of food miles shows
they are anything but.

And sooner or later, consumers are going to wake up to the fact that where food is sourced, and how it has arrived on the supermarket shelf, can be just as important, environmentally speaking, as how it was produced in the first place. Organics is big business. The European market was worth €20.7 billion in 2004, and has been growing by 26 per cent since 2001. Growing concern about the environmental impact of artificial fertilizers and pesticides has of course been a factor in this, but supermarkets have also been quick to tap into mainstream concerns about the consumption of possibly dangerous chemicals. Dressed up as evidence of environmental concern, the mainstream organic industry is increasingly being used as a marketing tool, feeding off consumer worries. And other vital environmental considerations are being ignored as a consequence. The environmental damage caused by food miles, for a start. Organic produce destined for supermarket shelves in increasingly being sourced abroad. A recent Soil Association report, which reported increased sales of organic products, was disappointed to report that supermarkets were achieving a portion of this growth with organic food from abroad. Transport of food by air, which creates the highest CO2 emissions per tonne, is the fastest growing mode, and is causing concern among environmentalists. The effect is that the positive environmental impact of organic farming can often be offset by such lengthy transportation. This increasing reliance on imports is fundamentally undermining the good intentions behind the organic movement and misleading consumers. Organic apples from New Zealand might leave a bigger environmental footprint than locally produced regular apples. The consumer has no way of knowing. The food industry is therefore misleading the ethical consumer, and as with everything, it will all come out in the wash eventually. That is not to say that the food miles argument is above reproach. The concept of sourcing food exclusively from local suppliers is in direct opposition to the notion of global free trade, and suggests a protectionist agenda that in Europe has been responsible for denying market access to some of the world's poorest nations. It is argued that poor cash crop-dependent economies could collapse if the global agricultural trade were to be curtailed. Many development specialists argue that cash crops tie poorer nations in a state of servitude, but the fact remains that for many nations, agricultural exports is the most important industry. And of course, locally produced food can often be more expensive than regular food. The issue of food miles is often seen as an exclusively middle class one - some can afford to care, some can't. But the point is that the food industry is not being straight with the consumer. We can surely decide for ourselves whether food miles is a relevant concept to live by or a load of lefty nonsense, but we need the facts to make this choice in the first place. The number of people who see themselves as ethical shoppers is increasing inexorably. Food companies are tapping into this, pushing organic food into the mainstream. But until the issue of food miles is adequately addressed, the organic movement will remain hobbled by an inherent contradiction. Eventually, we could see energy audits on supermarket shelves to help consumers choose wisely. If and when that happens, you can be sure that food makers will be falling over themselves to show the world that they think globally, act locally. Anthony Fletcher is the editor of FoodNavigator.com and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, he has lived and worked in the UK, France and Japan. If you would like to comment on this article please e-mail anthony.fletcher@novisgroup.com.

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