Ross Clark

Globophobia | 4 December 2004

A weekly survey of world restrictions on freedom and free trade

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A loftily named environmental pressure group called the Food Commission has been upset by the sale of bottled water from Fiji in Waitrose supermarkets. The water, it complains, has clocked up 10,000 ‘food miles’ before it reaches Western consumers. ‘Transporting water halfway across the world is surely the most ludicrous use of fossil fuels when water is plentiful in the UK,’ it complains. It is also concerned that we are wasting fossil fuels by importing prawns from Indonesia (7,000 food miles) and carrots from South Africa (5,900 food miles).

Counting the number of miles travelled by a product is a bizarre and crude way of trying to assess the environmental damage done by an industry. Most food is transported around the world on container ships which are extremely energy-efficient: it isn’t necessarily the case that a tub of butter transported 25 miles in a gas-guzzling Land-Rover to a farmers’ market has consumed less fossil fuel in its journey than a similar item transported hundreds of miles by sea. Moreover, the concept of ‘food miles’ ignores the amount of fossil fuel consumed in the item’s manufacture. It is possible to cut down your food miles by buying tomatoes grown in Britain as opposed to those grown in Ghana; the difference is that the British ones will have been raised in heated greenhouses and the Ghanaian ones in the open sun.

What the concept of food miles does provide, however, is the chance to hector British consumers into buying good old British nosh at the expense of food grown by nasty foreigners who don’t wash their hands before they pick it. It is an obnoxious doctrine which if practised in the way which the Food Commission preaches would cut out Third World countries from First World food markets. The number of miles travelled by our food should be regarded as a sign of the health of the global trade system, not a sign of damage to the environment.