Monday, 28 June 2010

food miles - interesting piece from The Big Block of Cheese blog

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about food miles and the environmental benefits of local food. I hear about it from friends and on the radio. I read about in newspapers and on the Internet. Every environmentally conscious consumer, it seems, has fallen for local food and farmers’ markets. And when I tell them that I don’t buy into the local food logic, and that I believe global food is the key to sustainability, I invariably get some kind of suspicious, even dirty look. I watch them wonder: How could anyone deny that local food is our environmental salvation? How could anyone endorse the psychopathic, planet-murdering global food consumer lifestyle?
My reasons are hard to explain, and they rarely withstand the full onslaught of slick, local food slogans. This is probably a case of what my roommate would call “unsexy truths” – it’s nearly impossible to distill my logic into buzzwords and mantra. Local food advocates only need a handful of words to explain how global food economies require longer transportation networks and, as a result, have larger carbon footprints. This argument, the so-called ‘food miles’ concept, seems intuitive. It just makes sense.
The case for global food, on the other hand, needs more than a handful of words. It’s technical and full of complexity – there is no poetry in global food. It does not capture the imagination of the conscientious consumer, and quite often it will dull the passions of concerned citizens. This is unfortunate, for it will either exasperate the listener’s attention span or, worse yet, lead them to the conclusion that it is merely a desperate and sophisticated attempt to confound the no-brainer logic of food miles. To this I say: there are rarely no-brainers in subjects as complex as agronomy, ecology, and economics, and solutions rarely fit inside a greeting card. The truth is not always simple and sexy, but it can be beautiful in its complexity. And this beauty will not let itself be seduced by the lazy mind.
For the last fifteen years, food miles have been the load-bearing pillar of the local food movement’s architecture. The desire to slow the insidious progress of climate change by reducing food transport distances, and thus carbon emissions, have been a driving factor behind the resurgence of farmers’ markets and local food products in supermarkets. In the past few years, however, the utility of food miles as a measure of environmental impact has been increasingly called into question by agricultural and environmental scientists. New research continues to expose fissures in the food miles argument.
Broadly speaking, the food miles concept relies on three assumptions that are increasingly being proven false. First, food miles assumes that the distance travelled by an agricultural commodity is more relevant in assessing environmental impact than the mode of transportation used and the quantity transported. Second, food miles assumes that transportation from producer to retailer is the most significant phase, environmentally speaking, of an agricultural commodity’s lifecycle. Third, food miles assumes that energy efficiency and carbon intensity in production are constant across all geographies, terrains, and climates. This post will walk you through an explanation of how each of these assumptions rarely holds true.
In 2005, the British government’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) conducted a study of the environmental impact of food transportation in the United Kingdom to determine whether food miles would make a useful measurement for the government’s Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy. The results of the study are fascinating, especially the revelation that food miles, when crudely conceptualized, are almost meaningless and that when analyzed closely, the food miles travelled by global food commodities were actually less harmful to the environment than those travelled by local food commodities. How is this possible, you might ask? It certainly seems to run against common sense.
In fact, it is not too difficult to explain these findings. Put simply, the fuel efficiency and cargo capacity of different modes of transportation matters a whole lot more than the actual distance travelled. A container ship, for instance, can move one tonne of food over one kilometer with less harmful emissions than a light ground vehicle (DEFRA’s fancy terminology for a pickup truck). Global food economies have the most efficient modes of transportation (container ships, freight trains, and heavy highway trucks) as their backbone while local food economies rely exclusively on the less-efficient pickup trucks, minivans, and automobiles. In one startling example, the DEFRA report demonstrates that a British consumer driving 10 kilometers to purchase green beans from Kenya actually expends more carbon per-bean than during the transport of these beans by airplane from Kenya. Had these beans been delivered to the retailer from a local producer by pickup truck, the carbon expended would likely have been even greater.
Sure, a local food advocate might say, these behemoths of global transportation might be more efficient per-tonne per-kilometer, but overall they contribute more harmful emissions because of the sheer volumes they carry and vast distances they travel. They might have marginally smaller carbon footprints per-capita, but in absolute terms the carbon footprint of global transportation far exceeds the carbon footprint of local transportation. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it forgets that humanity’s total appetite will remain constant, if not grow thanks to raising levels of prosperity in the developing world. Reducing the importance of global modes of transportation would only increase the prevalence of less-efficient local modes of transportation. If we could wave a magic wand and replace the existing global food economy with local equivalents, it would eliminate the enormous carbon footprint of global food transportation. Unfortunately, it would produce an even large carbon footprint resulting from a veritable army of farmers in pickup trucks (many of which aren’t the most environmentally friendly vehicles). This argument has recently been made by David Owen in his new book Green Metropolis.
These findings certainly cast doubt on the relevance of food miles and the sustainability of local food overall, but ultimately they will likely become little more than a footnote in the rapidly growing anti-localization literature. Their relative unimportance results from the same factors that disprove the second food miles assumption, that transportation is the most impactful phase, environmentally speaking, of an agricultural commodity’s lifecycle. Recent studies criticizing food miles all point out that transportation accounts for a very small percentage of an agricultural commodity’s total carbon footprint. A 2007 study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, for instance, found that over the entire lifecycle of the average agricultural commodity consumed in the United States, only 11% of green house gas emissions occurred during transportation. Furthermore, the stage of transport most derided by local food advocates, where commodities are delivered from producer to retailer across vast distances, accounted for only 4% of emissions. Clearly, the second assumption upon which food miles rests (that transportation is the most impactful phase, environmentally speaking, of an agricultural commodity’s lifecycle) does not hold true.
The real culprit is production itself, the stage of the commodity’s lifecycle that occurs before it even leaves the farm. The Carnegie Mellon study found that 83% of emissions occurred during the production phase, highlighting the importance of energy efficient and low-carbon intensity agricultural production. This is where the food miles concept makes another oversight. It fails to consider that longer transport distances are generally a beneficial trade-off for more efficient and less intensive production. Several studies have addressed this question in great detail, and their findings are very illuminating. These studies all point out that local variations in geography, terrain, and climate have profound impacts on the efficiency and intensity of agricultural production. A 2008 study from the University of Toronto found that strawberry farms in hot and sunny California produce, on average, 17 times more strawberries than their equivalents in Ontario. A similar study done by the Cranfield University in the United Kingdom found that 12,000 cut roses produced in Kenya’s favourable climate generated 6,000kg of carbon dioxide while their Dutch competitors required 35,000kg for the same quantity. The DEFRA study (mentioned above) found that British farmers generated 2,394kg of carbon dioxide during the production of a tonne of tomatoes while their Spanish counterparts generated only 630kg. Another study conducted by the Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand came to similar conclusions regarding lamb, apples, dairy products, and onions. For example, the study found that 2,849kg of carbon dioxide are generated during the production one tonne of lamb in the United Kingdom while only 688kg of carbon dioxide are generated during the production of one tonne of lamb on New Zealand’s clover-studded slopes and the subsequent transport of the meat 18,000km to the UK by boat.
This is, essentially, the logic behind global agriculture and the reason that food miles are little better than a “marketing fad” (to quote Pierre Desrochers, author of the University of Toronto study). The distance travelled by an agricultural commodity is not more relevant in assessing environmental impact than the mode of transportation used and the quantity transported. Transportation from producer to retailer is not the most significant phase, environmentally speaking, of an agricultural commodity’s lifecycle. Energy efficiency and carbon intensity are not constant across all geographies, terrains, and climates.
That being said, do not get the impression that I am categorically against local food production. There are some cases where the local agricultural commodity will prove to be the most environmental. A Spaniard should eat Spanish tomatoes. A New Zealander should eat New Zealand lamb. A Californian should eat California strawberries. The important issue here, and this is one place where I can agree with local food advocates, is that consumers put more thought into the provenance of their food. It is one economic activity that is universal to all human beings, and conscientious consumption holds incredible power to remodel the world in which we live. We should all ensure that our consumption patterns will contribute to a sustainable future. Just don’t take for granted that local food is always the answer and that food miles really mean anything.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

green path Asia - article from China Daily

Asia should stay on green path

By Fu Jing (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-09 07:49
Large Medium Small
Government officials, business leaders and media executives discuss how region should tackle common challenge of climate change
A top United Nations official has urged Asian nations to sustain the momentum of brisk investment in green economic growth and to avoid falling back on old developmental patterns in the post-financial crisis era.
Asia should stay on green path
At the 2010 Asia Forum on Reaction to Climate Change in Beijing on Thursday, from left: Zhu Ling, editor-in-chief of China Daily; Suwit Khunkitti, Thailand's minister of natural resources and environment; Zheng Guoguang, director of China Meteorological Administration; and Sun Cuihua, an official representing Xie Zhenhua, vice-minister of the National Development and Reform Commission and China's top climate change negotiator. [Zhang Wei / China Daily] 
"Asia is taking the lead globally in pumping a larger portion of stimulus money into a green recovery after the financial crisis. My concern is whether the momentum can be sustained," Nick Nuttall, chief spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Program, told China Daily on Thursday.
Nuttall said nearly all environmental ministers in Asia have shown great commitment to bringing in more radical measures to foster greener economies.
"But the most important thing is how to make other cabinet members, especially the finance minister, realize the importance of this move and to turn this political commitment into action."
Official figures show that more than 30 percent of China's stimulus spending has been injected into sustainable development, with the rate in South Korea surpassing 80 percent. Japan has also invested a huge sum in green industries.
Nuttall revealed his concerns at a panel discussion, titled Common Challenges and Differentiated Responsibilities for Asia, with Chinese experts and NGO representatives on Asia's role in tackling climate change on Thursday.
Han Wenke, president of the energy research institute of China's National Development and Reform Commission, said Asian countries should take an active, cooperative approach to both climate change negotiations and economic transformation.
"Asian countries, such as India and China, have already taken an active role in global negotiations and, as they continues, we should deepen such cooperation," Han said.
In the interim, he recommended setting up a regional mechanism to mitigate global warming while growing a greener economy. Expressing the hope that the whole of Asia will benefit from common development and growth, he said: "There should be a platform to help realize such a goal."
However, the panelists cautioned that challenges need to be overcome to achieve such a collective goal, as Asia comprises diverse economies with different cultures and at various stages of development.
"Compared to Africa, it is more difficult for Asia to have a single voice on climate change cooperation and this is a challenge," Nuttall said.
Lot S. Felizco, climate change policy head of Oxfam Hong Kong, said the diverse combination of economies in Asia dictates that each country take on different responsibilities, despite his wish that the whole of Asia join together in facing up to the challenges.
"The deepening of emission cuts in developed economies should be the key to the negotiations, though every economy has a role to play in reducing carbon emissions," said Felizco. "Each country has a different responsibility."
Pan Jiahua, China's leading climate change policy advisor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Asia, as a group, has already started to play a global role.
"To make the role bigger, we must understand our own challenges in tacking climate change," said Pan, who recently discussed climate change with China's top leaders including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
Listing the major challenges facing Asia, he said many countries are still in the early- or mid-stages of urbanization and industrialization, as a result of which their economies need to expand.
Meanwhile, Asian countries remain vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather conditions, such as typhoons, floods and droughts.
"In facing these challenges, we have to take the lead in the fight against global warming," said Pan. "And we are more ambitious than Europe and the US, which are talking more than they are doing."
China daily

Monday, 14 June 2010

Ark Eden: Mui Wo, Hong Kong

Ark Eden: Mui Wo, Hong Kong
When you think of Hong Kong what comes to mind? More often than not it will be the images of extraordinary density of buildings clustered on the island and creeping up each mountain slope. Every conceivable space in the city is taken up by human activity, commerce and industry. It powerfully demonstrates what human beings can do to influence the environment around them and provides a vision of the complex interrelationship of ideas, spaces and understanding that make up our cosmopolitan modern cities.

But there is another Hong Kong, equally as compelling and telling a complex story of age old connections, interrelationships and mutual dependencies that are every bit as compelling as those we have created. It lies all around the region, on the hillsides and within the islands, it is the rainforest and jungle of Hong Kong.

This week I spent a day on Mui Wo, with Jenny, the founder and inspiration behind the ArkEden programme. It takes a boat ride of 40 minutes to reach the island, leaving behind the intensity of the city the first thing you notice on reaching the jetty is the tranquility of the little community huddled on the edge of the waterfront. Instead of cars, there are bicycles, and footpaths, the noise comes from insects and birds instead of engines and air-conditioning units. We walked together along narrow lanes up and up into the jungle on the steep hillside. Leaving behind the village and working our way along a pathway that follows the contour of a small river with fish darting along in the clear water.

Forty minutes later, way, way up on the mountainside, deep into the jungle, we reach Jenny's home and the base for the programme. it is breathtaking, hot at 35degrees, humid, with cooling breezes that pushes air through the forest canopy the taste and smell of the jungle. There is an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder about the rainforest. The sheer abundance of exotic plants, the trees, spiders, the noises, all combine to bombard the senses to overload. We drink water from the stream and talk about our projects, Jenny asking about Incredible Edible, what we do, what we hope for, what we are learning, and me learning about how Ark Eden works to provide the people of the region with an opportunity to connect with a world which is all around them but also very distant from their daily lives. We walk the talk, on little pathways that weave around the massive forest, ducking under vast spiders webs, pushing aside huge leaves of banana trees and stopping to taste the fruits of plants which I have neither seen nor tasted before. The jungle is a natural food forest. Its abundance serves to feed and nourish the variety of life within it. Plants grow within and between each other in what at times looks like a great big dance of nature, beautiful complex connextions and colours that provide a dense tapestry of life. I am overwhelmed by this place.

Jenny has a wonderful relationship with the forest, built up over 25 years of living there. She shows how there is no need to do lots of the things we seem to need to do to understand our busy world, we just have to stop and observe to see what is needed. By being in this environment you simply connect with this simple idea, in every sense you witness here the power of nature. It is the most profound lesson that i have ever encountered of how we need to think our way forward and ensure that our living environment touches us and guides us to a different future. On leaving Mui Wo, and returning to the bustle of Hong Kong, I understand more than ever why our little project in Todmorden matters, it helps us to see and believe and trust in our natural world, if we can do that then we can make the right choices for a sustainable future.