Food has moved around the world since Europeans brought tea from China, but never at the speed or in the amounts it has over the last few years. Consumers in not only the richest nations but, increasingly, the developing world expect food whenever they carve it, with no concession to season or geography. Increasingly efficient global transport network make it practical to bring food before it spoils from distant places where labor costs are lower. And the penetration of mega markets in nations from China to Mexico with supply and distributors chains that grid the globe – like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco – has accelerated the trend.
Never has food moved around the world at the speed or in the amounts it has over the last few years. It is now time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the resulting pollution according to some experts and economists of different countries.
Cod caught off Norway is shipped to China to be turned into filets and then shipped back to Norway for sale. Argentine lemons fill supermarket shelves on the Citrus Coast of Spain, as local lemons rot on the ground. Half of Europe’s peas are grown and packaged in Kenya. In the United States, Fresh Direct proclaims kiwi season has expanded to All Year. Now that Italy has become the world’s leading supplier of New Zealand’s national fruit, taking over in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.
But the movable feast comes at a cost; Pollution especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas from transporting the food.
Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international fright carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution through taxes or other measures.
An economist who wrote a recent European Union report on food imports noted that Britain, for example, imports and exports 15,000 tons of Waffles a year, and similarly exchanges 20 tons of bottled water with Australia. More important nobody is paying the environmental cost of all that travel.
Europe is poised to change that. The European Commission in Brussels announced that all freight carrying flights into and out of the European Union would be included in the trading bloc’s emissions trading program by 2012 meaning permits will have to be purchased for the pollution they generate. The commission is negotiating with the global shipping organization, the International Maritime Organization, over various alternatives to reduces greenhouse gases. If there is no solution by year’s end sea freight will also be included in Europe’s emissions trading program. The EU, the World’s leading food importer has increased imports 20% in the last five years. The value of fresh fruit and vegetables, imported by the US, in second place, nearly doubled from 2000 to 2006.
Under little known international treaty called the Convention on International Civil aviation, signed in Chicago in 1944 to help the fledging airline industry, fuel for international travel and transport of goods, including food, is exempt from taxes, unlike trucks, cars and buses. There is also no tax fuel used by ocean freighters. Proponents say ending these breaks could help ensure that producers and consumers pay the environmental cost of increasingly well-traveled food.
The food and transport industries say the issue is more complicated. The debate has put some companies on the defensive, including Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, known as a vocal promoter of green initiatives.
Some of those companies say that they are working to limit green house gases produced by their by their businesses but that the question is how to do it. They oppose regulation and new taxes and partly in an effort to head them off, are advocating consumer education is introducing a labeling system that will let consumers assess a product’s carbon foot print. Some foods that travel long distance may actually have an environmental advantage over local products, like flowers grown in the tropics instead of in energy hungry European green houses. This may be as radical for environmental consuming as putting a calorie count on the side of packages to help people who want to lose weight.
Better transportation networks have sharply reduced the time required to ship food abroad For instance improved roads in Africa have helped cut the time it takes for goods to go from farms on that continent to stores in Europe to four days, compared with 10 days not too many years ago.
And with far cheaper labor cost in African nations, Morocco and Egypt have displaced Spain in just a few seasons as important suppliers of tomatoes, salad greens to Central Europe. The economics are compelling. For example, Norwegian cod costs manufacturers $1.36 a pound to process in Europe, but only 23 cents a pound in Asia.