Thursday, 15 October 2009

Cutting food flights to fight climate change

Today is Blog Action Day 2009. Over 8,000 bloggers in 146 countries, with an estimated readership of almost 12 million people, have pledged to take part, as a way of sparking discussion on the chosen subject.

And this year, the organisers told participants that: "We encourage you to write about climate change in the context of how it relates to the topic of your blog."

Now I looked at that and thought: 'what is the theme of my blog?'

Well, the pleasureable things in life. And food is writ large in this.

But how do you combine that with the question of climate change?

Actually, it's quite easy.

Amongst the dafter things I've seen in UK shops have been herbs from Israel, watercress from the US, haricot vert from Kenya, courgettes from Zimbabwe and asparagus from Peru.

The first two are particularly absurd, since watercress and the herbs in question are all grown easily in this country. The others are seasonal.

But such foodstuffs are coming thousands and thousands of miles – by air. And that, if we accept that air travel produces climate-affecting emissions, is an issue in terms of the environmental cost – the carbon footprint of such food, if you will.

There are, of course, other questions.

• Are such foodstuffs 'natural' to the countries they're being grown in – and could indigenous foodstuffs be grown there instead to support local populations? According to the UN, global hunger is worsening. Not in the industrialised world, though. There are massive problems in many areas of Africa – including in Kenya where those haricot vert are grown for export. And plenty of problems in Zimbabwe, too. Peru, where out-of-season asparagus is grown for export, has serious food shortages.

• Then there's the matter of fair trade. Are local people being paid a fair price for what they produce for consumers in the developed world? It's not too difficult to buy the likes of coffee, tea and cocoa products that are fair trade – or exotic fruits such as bananas. Even wines from places such as South Africa that have been produced by co-operatives. And none of these need to be flown half way around the world.

Consumer power can have an impact on environmental issues. In the 1980s, one of the prime movers behind companies replacing CFCs from many products was the shift of consumers to products that didn't use CFCs.

Within the last few days I've noticed that Cadbury's, one of the biggest names in UK chocolate snacks, is now advertising that it's got a fair trade badge (okay, it's products hardly contain any actual chocolate, but that's not the point here). In other words, such a move is now seen as good for business.

But the consumer – you and I – doesn't have to suffer by making climate-informed choices about food.

Part of the key is simply seasonality. Asparagus in December in the UK really is nowhere near as good as it is in its short, natural season in the UK. Why? Well not least because it has to be as fresh as possible when eaten: the longer it's in transit, the more the taste decays.

And strawberries just don't have the same zing in February as they do in June.

So why bother?

Try to think locally – or at least regionally. And try to think seasonally. It's a joy to have parsnips in October. It's a joy to have the first asparagus at the end of May. And part of the joy is that you don't have them all year round – you don't take them for granted. Few people would dream of wanting beef bourguignon in the middle of summer – so why would you want strawberries at Christmas?

Not that air travel is the only form of transport that can contribute to the gases that many scientists believe are creating (in part at least) global warming.

Bottled water is another case in point.

Last year, public service union UNISON illustrated the insanity of transporting bottled water across the globe. For people in the UK (and most of the rest of Europe), tap water is perfectly good to drink. And it's perfectly easy and cheap to get a water filter jug for the fridge if you want.

Yet we still import bottled water from vast distances, with huge concomitant transport and environmental costs.

For instance, in the capital, you can buy Latitude 40 degrees, which has come from Tasmania to London = 17,396km.

Or FIJI water from Fiji = 16,300km.

Or VOSS water from Norway = 1,155km.

That's a lot of fuel to transport water to countries with plenty of water – and never mind the cost in terms of plastics for bottling.

We, as consumers and food lovers, can make a big contribution to cutting emissions by cutting out unnecessary food flights and journeys.

And we don't need to let our taste buds suffer one iota.

• To read more about Blog Action Day, visit

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