We are confronted with a new challenge: An army of super-sophisticated simpletons prepared to destroy world trade in the name of “food miles” and “carbon footprinting.”
As an industry, we now have to rise up with a voice of sanity in a wilderness of the mad and demand that good science is employed in this debate. We must demand that our industry — the tens of millions around the world who depend on it for jobs and the billions who depend on it for a variety of reasonably priced and enjoyable products — not be sacrificed upon the alter of a secular religion dedicated to the “carbon” cult.
Where do we start? Here are some basic facts to keep in mind:
- Global warming is controversial. The temperature of the world has fluctuated before (you learned about the Ice Age in school?), and may fluctuate again. If we have entered an age of warmer climates, the extent is not known. How much more the global climate may warm up is hotly contested.
- Even if we have global warming, the extent to which humans contribute to this is controversial and the degree to which our food supply contributes is almost completely conjectured.
- If you accept global warming as a fact and accept that human beings and, particularly, the food supply are the cause, it is still not clear we can do anything about it. The damage may have already been done. Besides, it is also not clear that global warming is bad. It requires tremendous arrogance to assume that the “correct” temperature for the earth is the one we happened to grow up with! If the temperature rises, it may help Siberia and Canada; other places may be hurt. But temperature is not a moral scale where colder is more virtuous.
- Even if you accept that global warming is a problem that the food industry can and should do something about, simple-minded ploys such as putting airplane stickers on some items provide no information at all to consumers. The product came by airplane? So what? Maybe it was a passenger jet and the cargo was just filling cargo space that would have gone empty. Maybe the product came from a country that imports a great deal by air and so the cargo plane would have returned empty.
- “Food miles” itself is a nonsensical concept. It elevates one variable — how far did something travel — and makes it the sine qua non of its environmental impact. But there are many variables. In New Zealand, lamb and mutton are grass fed. In the U.K., lamb and mutton are mostly fed on feed that farmers grow for them — two totally different energy profiles. Locally grown product may have to be produced in a greenhouse that requires energy, while the imported product can be grown in an open field. Knowing that product came from far away is simply useless in this debate.
- “Carbon footprinting” sounds like a more reasonable approach, but the complexity of calculating it properly makes it almost impossible to do accurately in production agriculture. As a result, retailers who demand these calculations get phony and irrelevant numbers.
- The industry is efficient; consumers are not. Transports fully loaded with a product are inherently efficient as the carbon output it creates is divided by many pounds of product. Consumers are inherently inefficient as they get in their SUVs and pick up a few items at a time. This means that promoting environmental mantras like “buy locally grown” can easily backfire. If a consumer once a week makes an extra trip to a local farmer’s market, it is quite possible that the task produced more carbon output than would be saved by not buying from far away during the consumer’s normal supermarket visit.
- In any case, carbon is not the only value. People in many poor countries depend on export markets for sustenance. Rich countries often employ migrant workers or immigrants that send remittances back to poor countries. Are all these millions of people to simply be dismissed in the name of an abstract, hypothetical like carbon footprinting or food miles?
- We have to think about the alternatives. If we don’t buy from poor countries or if we make rich countries send their immigrant workers home, what will these people do? Can we be certain that these new practices — perhaps burning local wood or dung to have heat and cook food — won’t be worse for the environment than current practices?
- Workers in poor countries typically use far less carbon because they live without air conditioning, cars, appliances and other things that westerners consider necessities. If we really followed the logic of “food miles” advocates, we would import all our food from poor countries so that the lifetime output of carbon by the total food workforce would go down.
We have a fantastic mechanism for identifying the cost of our products on the world. It is called the “pricing mechanism.” It drives producers to find the most efficient production and transportation systems. If global warming is deemed a problem, and the solution is determined to be a carbon-output reduction, then impose a tax and let industry find the most efficient way to operate.
Let us join together, however, to prevent “food miles”, “carbon footprinting” and similar concepts from being hoisted on an uninformed public as some kind of virtuous solution. It not only may not solve the problem, but those consumers cavorting in search of a locally grown product will probably make it worse.