Going Bananas Over Food Miles – Putting the Eco Back in Economics

food miles for fruit, watermelon bananas
Food miles explained: I know the best option is to grow and buy locally.  But when that isn’t possible, what is the least worse option?

It was like one of those weird trivia quizzes, What do these places have in common: Israel, Egypt, Chile and the United States? The answer is that berries from these countries were shrink-wrapped together to be sold in an Irish grocery store.  According to the label on a package of berries I bought in a local store in Ireland, the cherries came from Israel, the strawberries from Egypt, the blueberries from Chile and the raspberries from the United States.  Something didn’t seem quite right about this. Especially since I am concerned about food miles. I decided to look into the economics of shipping these products to my home. 

Voodoo Economics?

First thing: All of these berries grow in Ireland. In fact, raspberries grow like weeds in the open spaces between our home and the grocery store.  So why do we bring them in from the United States? What kind of voodoo economics is this?

Here are the total distances and travel time at a cruising speed of 30 kph:

Arica, (nearest port in Chile) to Dublin: 11875 km, 19 days
New York, US to Dublin: 5365 km, 8 days
Tel Aviv, Israel to Dublin: 5975 km, 9 days
Alexandria, Egypt to Dublin: 5525 km, 8 days

For a total of 28740 kilometers, 60 percent of the distance around the world.  How much oil was burned?  A typical cargo ship can carry about 29,000 kg and gets about 3 meters per liter of bunker fuel (a low grade and very dirty burning fuel-oil):

(28740 km * 1000 meters/km)/(3 meters/liter) = 9580000 liters
9580000 liters/29,000 kg = 330 liters/kg

330 liters of fuel are burned to bring a kilogram of berries to Ireland?  Someone please check my math, it just doesn’t make sense.

Yes, short-lived crops like berries are more likely to fly than take a ship– but doesn’t that burn even more fuel?  This problem isn’t just limited to out of season and tropical crops.  The UK owes the European Union a £20 million fine for applying the lower frozen garlic tariff to fresh garlic , shipped from China.  An Irish man is going to jail for six years for evading €1.6 million in import taxes on Chinese garlic.  I ran to the kitchen and checked, yes my “fresh” garlic came from China!  I’m laughing because a nearby hill is so thick with wild garlic that we come home smelling of it whenever we walk there.

Is it Possible to Grow it Locally?

We all know that when possible, the best option is to buy and grow locally.  But how do I know if that is possible?  My children attend a gaelscoil.  They learn in the ancient Irish language which was outlawed for hundreds of years.  The Irish word for strawberry is sú talún (fruit of the ground), raspberries are Sú craobh ( fruit of the branch.)

But the Irish word for banana is banana.  Before Ireland’s independence in 1921, few Irish had ever seen a banana, so there was no need for it to have its own word.  My simple rule of thumb for food is:  If the Irish name matches the English name, it’s probably imported.  If the Irish name doesn’t match, it doesn’t need to be imported.

The Irish word for potato is prátaí.  The Irish and English don’t match.  It is an import, but it has grown here long enough to deserve its own Irish word.  I look at the origin label for a sack of potatoes: Egypt.  This makes some sense.  Egyptian farmers might not worry about dampness and rain causing a blight outbreak as it often does in Ireland.  Egypt’s biggest problem is lack of water.

I consider the benefits of helping Egyptian farmers,  Irish farmers, and others along the supply chain.  I weigh oil consumption against water consumption, fungicides against the convenience and health benefits of having fresh potatoes out of season.

I know the best option is to grow and buy locally.  But when that isn’t possible, what is the least worse option?

Countries typically enact laws and taxes to try to encourage and discourage particular kinds of trade.  They are often focused on encouraging local business or protecting labor.  They are seldom focused on reducing energy consumption.  So we have EU regulations on curvature of a banana and the font used in food labels, but no standards regarding the amount of energy used to get a product from the field to the customer.  Tariffs and taxes are blunt instruments against global trade and they can hurt small farmers without necessarily doing anything to reduce the energy used in food production.

Green Food. Is there an App for that?

A simple product labeling law might be the answer.  Informed customers are powerful.  For example ,  Coca-Cola and Pepsi recently changed their formulas to avoid the cancer label California requires for some ingredients.  What if there was a database for imported food.  The database would be updated whenever the food changed hands, was processed, irradiated, packaged or otherwise modified on its way to a consumer.

We wouldn’t need a huge list in a tiny font, all we would need is a barcode or other unique ID.  Given that food is already being labeled with advertisements, this is well within existing technology.

My wife has an Android phone nutrition application.  If she wants detailed information on the nutritional content of food, she simply points the phone at the  bar code.  I wondered if there is an application which can tell me how many miles my food has traveled, how much fertilizer was used, how much oil was consumed and did the growers get a fair amount of the profits?  Here are some applications  which try to help consumers determine how green their food is:

  1. GoodGuide (Free iPhone and Android):  Users create filters for food and other products based on personal criteria such as:
    • Organic
    • Ingredient Safety (scientifically proven and controversial)
    • Fragrance-free
    • Animal Welfare Certifications
    • Energy Efficiency
    • Recycled Materials
    • Climate Change
    • Pollution
    • Resource Conservation
    • Labor and Humanitarian Issues
  2. iLocavore  (Free  iPhone, Android): Focused on crops and growing seasons in the U.S.  Helps consumers find what is in season in their region
  3.  (EWG) Dirty Dozen (Free iPhone, Android):  Warns consumers of fruits with heavy pesticide use.
  4. Fooducate: (Free iPhone, Android): Focused on food ingredients and health.

The list isn’t long and none are focused specifically on Middle East and North Africa.  So if you’re an iPhone or Android application developer, here is an untapped market.

Not every consumer will prioritize energy, cost, convenience and environmental concerns in the same way.  But such variety in tastes actually favors smaller ‘niche’ businesses over agribusiness monoculture.  As information trickles down to the consumer, we will find ourselves crowdsourcing a more efficient economy, or at least one that isn’t so blatantly stupid.

Illustration is a remix of images from inkscape’s open clip art library.

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