Food miles misleading: ABARE

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 14th December 2009

ABARE, Australia’s leading commodity research group, has disputed the widely held belief that local food is better for the environment, labelling food miles as a “misleading indicator” that could in fact increase carbon emissions.
The term food miles has been bandied around a lot in the press over recent years and has led to a steady increase in consumer demand for locally grown produce. However, despite consumers demanding more local food, research has also suggested that most are not willing to pay a premium.

The concept finds its origin from the UK, where it has been used since the 90s to push consumer demand for local products on the basis that transporting food long distances leaves a great carbon footprint. However, the researchers note that this carbon footprint may still be less than certain local food if it is produced more efficiently overseas.

“Empirical evidence indicates that food miles is an unreliable indicator of carbon emissions in the food supply chain,” the ABARE report read. “For example, in 2006 a major study on the validity of food miles found that New Zealand is substantially more energy efficient, and less carbon intensive, than UK producers in producing and delivering lamb and dairy products to the UK market.”

“Importantly, while food miles may have intuitive appeal among some consumers, the food miles concept results in less informed consumption choices and does not reflect the carbon emissions embodied in many products.”

Carbon labelling

A survey undertaken by the UK Carbon Trust in 2006 found that three-quarters of UK consumers were concerned about climate change and the carbon footprint of their purchases, with two-thirds indicating they would purchase products with a low carbon footprint, the ABARE report noted. As a result, they worked with a number of firms to produce a carbon reduction label. And the carbon labelling movement hasn’t stopped there, with major news this year being Walmart’s plan to ensure an eco-label can be found on all products sold in their stores – no mean feat given they are the largest retailer in the world.

ABARE indicated there were reasons to believe carbon labelling could present a sound alternative to food miles.

“Carbon labelling may encourage behavioural change in consumers to achieve more sustainable consumption patterns. The costs of adjusting toward a low emissions economy may be reduced when both price and non-price signals are used to reduce demand for relatively carbon intensive products,” the report noted. “More generally, carbon labelling may facilitate consumer participation in climate change responses.”

“However,” they warned, “the benefits of carbon labelling are uncertain because they depend on consumer perceptions of the reliability of the information and access to that information – especially where carbon labelling schemes are voluntary.”

“The administrative costs of carbon labelling are likely to vary according to the methodology or standards adopted. A more complex methodology would tend to increase the cost of data collection and calculation of the carbon footprint as well as the cost of the verification process. Mandatory disclosure imposes costs on all producers, while voluntary labelling would occur only if the investment is assessed by producers to be profitable.”

As a result the issues they could see with carbon labelling plans were “identifying the methodology; data collection and calculation of the carbon footprint; verification; and disclosure.”

Misleading indicator

“Food miles is a misleading indicator of the carbon footprint of food products that, if widely used, would distort international agricultural markets and possibly increase global carbon emissions,”ABARE said. “Carbon labels are a potential alternative to food miles, but it is important to ensure that carbon labelling, where implemented, represents a cost effective contribution to the climate change response on the part of consumers.”