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Food (II): the carbon footprint of a smoothie

From locavores to eat local challenges, who doesn’t count their “food miles”? But now those like Prince Charles and Tesco are swearing by a newer way to shop for groceries: your daily carbon intake.

The local food movement tipped fast (more on this trend in part 1 of this report: Food: counting the miles per bite). Within just a few years we’ve gone from a simple trend towards farmers markets to a fixation on locavores, box schemes (CSAs), food circles networking, 100-mile-dieters, farmer/chef speed dating, farm-to-school markets and local foodshed renewal groups.

We’re shipping increasingly more food around the world- since 1961 the tonnage of global food trade has quadrupled, while population has just doubled – and our food is traveling increasingly farther- estimates range from 1,500 to 5,000 miles on average-, but the energy cost of all this shipping, trucking, flying of food is not all that is driving this culinary revolution.

While this report is focused on the efforts to account for the carbon emissions of our food, first we want to point out that local food has gained a following for more than just its lower carbon footprint. Some of the argued advantages are:

  • Food safety: A reaction to the food scares, like E. Coli contaminations and meat product recalls, which, according to Worldwatch researcher Brian Halweil, “were directly caused by the fact that our food system is so concentrated and so long distanced, that there’s just a handful of farms and factories that are producing a majority of the food.”
  • Health benefits: “Some studies show that, specialisation and standardisation, coupled with long distance transport is diluting the nutritional potency of our food. Some nutrient losses, in particular vitamin C, vitamin A, riboflavin and vitamin E, will occur even with excellent storage conditions.”
  • Crop diversity: We’ve gone from using thousands of food plant species to just the 150 that are cultivated today, 4 of which produce half of our food. “As a result, many local crops that have traditionally been important for feeding the poorest sectors of society are now under-utilised or neglected.”

Beyond food miles

Buying local has definitely gone mainstream. In a 2005 report, food research group IDG found that 70% of British consumers want to buy local food and 49% want to buy more than they currently purchased. With all this attention, the concept of food miles has been given closer scrutiny.

In July of 2006, an academic paper from Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, sent a wave of doubt through the press. All the major sources –Guardian, Telegraph, New York Times and Economist– were quick to report that when it comes to dairy and lamb perhaps Britons shouldn’t be eating local. After all, according to the report, it is more efficient to produce lamb and dairy in New Zealand than in the UK and ship it to the UK, even including the energy used in transport- those “food miles”.

The reports authors weren’t the first to claim that the food miles concept is overly simplistic. Even those who coined the phrase never intended it to be all-inclusive; as clarified by professor Tim Lang, “The idea behind food miles -or food kilometres, as they should probably now be known- was and remains simple. We wanted people to think about where their food came from.”

Since then others have argued for a more complex examination of where are food comes from. In 2005 the UK’s DEFRA report on food miles concluded that although the environmental and economic costs of food transport are over £9 billion per year (dominated by congestion), “food kilometers as a single indicator of sustainability is inadequate.”

To develop a more adequate indicator of the impact of food transport, the reports authors urged considering the following factors:

  • Transport mode: Sea transport is relatively efficient in relationship to environmentally-harmful air transport.
  • Transport efficiency: Because most goods are now routed through supermarket regional distribution centers, using large Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs), there is more efficient loading of vehicles which reduces the impact per tonne of food.
  • Differences in food production systems: the impact of food transport can be partially offset if it has been produced more sustainably than the food available locally.

By air or by sea

When in October of 2006 the Stern report targeted the kiwi- and the air miles associated with those sold in the UK- as a global-warming offender, the New Zealand government was quick to use the transport efficiency argument to defend their fruit. According to the agricultural minister Jim Anderton all kiwi sold in Europe arrives by boat– “commonly acknowledged as one of the most carbon-efficient forms of transport.”

In order to address this difference, in March of 2007, Marks & Spencer decided to introduce an “air freighted” label. They began using it on 20 products that had traveled by air and plan to extend that to 130 by years end.

This more specific label also has its detractors. An article in the Kenyan newspaper The Nation in February of 2007 entitled “How British Consumers Are Back-Stabbing Kenya” argues that their more energy-efficient farming due to their climate, outweighs the emissions generated by the air-freighting of their food.

In May of 2007 when the UK Soil Association began considering denying organic status to air-freighted food, the uproar grew louder given that organic produce- along with cut flowers and other high value products like essential oils- is the fastest growing part of Africa’s horticultural industry.

These complaints are not unfounded. Even the DEFRA food miles report authors back in 2005 when analyzing the differences between national systems of food production, recognized that it can be more sustainable to import organic food than to grow non-organic food in the UK. Though they rejected any air travel stating that “this was only true if the food was imported by sea, or for very short distances by road.”

If this is starting to sound confusing, consider one more study highlighted by the authors of the DEFRA report which showed that, except during the summer months (an argument for seasonal eating), it can be more energy efficient to import tomatoes from Spain than to produce them in heated greenhouses in the UK.

Our broken foodsheds

A diet based on food miles may be overly simplistic if we assume business as usual, that:

  • Supermarkets will continue to be our primary source for food rather than alternatives like local food delivery as CSAs and box schemes, perhaps in well-packed trucks delivered to our homes like the milkmen used to do.
  • We’re not all going to start just eating seasonal locally-sustainable foods within a rather small radius: ideally, within 20 kilometers (12 miles), according to a Food Policy Journal report from 2005.

Authors of the Food Policy report, Tim Lang and Jules Pretty, argue that consumer “road miles” –you in your car with just a head of lettuce and a loaf of bread heading home from the store- account for proportionally more damage than food “air miles”.

And in the UK, those road miles have risen as car use for buying food in towns rose 27% between 1992 to 2005 and the average distance to the market rose from 3.3 miles to 4.2 between 1995 and 2005.

Buying closer to home may be getting easier. Witness the growth in farmers markets and CSAs (community-supported agriculture)- or box schemes and grassroots groups- like food circles networking and local foodshed renewal groups– working to rebuild our local food pathways: those relationships between farmers, consumers, markets, restaurants, chefs and schools.

But as things stand now, it can be difficult to shop local when confronted by everyday supermarket choices. Even food miles pioneer Tim Lang had trouble on a shopping trip experiment for The Guardian paper in 2005 when confronted with a choice of nectarines “between intensively grown French and Spanish and organic Italian”. Or a fish pie with a medley of ingredients: “The packet merely says, ‘Made in the UK.’ The only pointer to distance was Honduras for the prawns, designated as ‘4%’ (but of what?). The salmon was Scottish, the cod Icelandic, the haddock North Atlantic. The cheddar could be from anywhere.”

A prince to the rescue

When confronted with this complicated math, what is an ordinary shopper to do? In December of 2006, Prince Charles announced his plan to simplify things for consumers.

Part of his Accounting for Sustainability plan- launched online with a short film starring Stephen Fry as Planet Earth -the royal hopes to make sustainable shopping more like counting calories. Or as Vanity Fair described it in their Green Issue from April of 2007, “If a can of soup lists calories, why can’t it also list the environmental costs of getting that can to market?”

To show food manufacturers that calculating the carbon cost of their products can be done, the prince is setting an example with the product line he sells from his own organic farm. As stated on his website, “His Royal Highness’ food company Duchy Originals is leading the way and is beginning to quantify how much greenhouse gas is emitted during the production of its goods.”

Your daily carbon allowance

While the Prince & Co. began counting their gasses, the British government launched their own rating system. In March of 2007, the government-funded Carbon Trust launched the carbon reduction label in a pilot program with companies Walkers, Boots and Innocent and it all began with a bag of crisps (AKA chips in the US).

In April 2007, Walkers Cheese and Onion crisps were the first product to hit the shelves with a carbon label. The footprint for the company’s best-selling flavour: 75g/package. This may be meaningless to an untrained eye, but along with the label comes a bit of education.

On the Walkers site, they break down where that energy is being used: raw materials (44%), manufacturing (33%), packaging (15%), transport (9%) and disposal of empty packs (2%).

To help consumers learn to count their daily carbon, the website of the smoothie company Innocent- whose 250 ml bottle of mangoes and passion fruit smoothie has a carbon footprint of 294g- details the guideline daily allowance (GDA) of CO2 per person.

Given that the government’s target for CO2 emissions is 8.3 tonnes/person/year, the daily allowance is 22 kilograms. Since this includes all expenditures- from driving to heating to shopping-, to make a bit easier to decide whether a smoothie is a realistic expenditure, they break it down even further.

Using Carbon Trust statistics that food and drink equals 13% of annual emissions, the final tally: your food and drink GDA is 2900g, or about 10 fruit smoothies.

Reduce it or lose it

While it may take awhile for the average shopper to learn to count carbon, according to Carbon Trust research, 66% of consumers do want to know the carbon footprint of their products.

And it appears the product manufacturers are willing to comply. According to Carbon Trust, since its launch, more than 150 companies have registered their interest in their scheme, including industry giants like Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Cadbury Schweppes.

In July of 2007, consumers in the UK began to see the carbon reduction label on all flavors of Walkers Crisps as well as for a range of Botanics shampoos in 250 Boots stores across the UK, but the physical label is just part of the story.

The carbon counts aren’t just for consumers, they’re also meant to serve as an incentive for companies to cut emissions. To join the labeling scheme, companies must sign a “reduce it or lose it” clause which commits them to reducing their product’s carbon footprint within two years or lose the right to display the label.

Brand manager for the Botanics shampoos, Tamara Sharpe, claims they’ve already reduced the footprint of their shampoos by 20% and this achievement has already been incorporated into their marketing, “We’re highlighting this to customers in store and giving them advice to help them reduce their carbon footprint further.”

The problem with hydrated potatoes

The label may not just help consumers reduce their footprint, but it may make suppliers more efficient as carbon emissions becomes a selling point. As Tom Delay, chief executive of the Carbon Trust, explained to The Financial Times, traditionally farmers have sold to the company based on weight, which gives them an incentive to humidify the potatoes with water (making them heavier).

The Carbon Trust, while researching the supply chain for Walkers discovered that since farmers sell to the company based on weight, they were humidifying their potatoes to make them heavier.

While evaluating their carbon costs they found that “a key element of carbon embedded in a crisp is the energy required to fry the potato” and that that excess water requires more energy to remove. This knowledge can help them change the way they buy potatoes and cut emissions from frying by up to 10%.

Not only does the humidification process use energy, but potatoes with excess water require more energy to fry as well. Based on this knowledge, Walkers can now change their pricing scheme to reward farmers for produce with lower water content.

Tom Delay claims this knowledge won’t just help Walkers reduce their carbon footprint, but will save them money. “We identified that Walkers could save up to 9,200 tonnes of CO2 and £1.2 million a year just by changing the way its potatoes are sourced.”

70,000 different labels

The UK’s biggest retailer Tesco isn’t putting all their eggs in one basket. Along with their support for the Carbon Trust labels, they announced in January of 2007 that they were developing their own labeling system to indicate the greenhouse gas emissions (for production, processing and transport) for all 70,000 of their products.

A daunting task that they’ve outsourced to Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) along with £5m. Tesco Chief Executive, Sir Terry Leahy, sees this as an opportunity for “identifying and overcoming the carbon pressure points in our own operations and supply chain. If we are to tell our customers the carbon cost of every product, we must also minimise that cost.”

While Tesco, as the world’s 4th largest retailer, may have the funds to devote toward labeling their end of a product’s carbon footprint, that may not be true of all of their suppliers, like small farms. As ECI researcher Rebecca White told The Financial Times, ”Big companies will usually have energy managers because of the cost of energy and the climate change levy, but when it gets to on-the-farm, measuring things like methane and nitrous oxide is a lot to ask.”

The carbon footprint of a Big Mac

Creating carbon labels for our food could be years in the making. Beyond issues like whether to handicap fair trade goods lies the neverland of post point of purchase: from how food is cooked to how it is refrigerated it to how it is transported home (car, bike, public transport).

The consumer’s role in the equation may never be accurately accounted for, but the process of carbon counting has begun and soon it may be second nature to know just how much CO2 was emitted in the making of your food.

Thanks to the work of Swiss and Swedish researchers back in 2000, we now know that the energy used to create a cheeseburger- complete with onion, lettuce, bun and pickles- is 7.3 and 20 megajoules. Perhaps, in a few years, that will mean something to every carbon counting teenager.

Visit the first part of this article: Food (I): counting miles per bite.