As part of its continuing series on the economics of food, the New York Times has a good article today on the globalization of food and the environmental impacts of the global food system.
The article discusses how market pressure and the search for low-cost sources for labor in the processing of agricultural commodities has driven much of the increase in “food miles” between producer and consumer.
What struck me as under-appreciated, however, is the fact that fuel for international shipping is exempt from taxation as a part of the Convention on International Civil Aviation. The result, of course, is that fuel prices are artificially lower for international trade, providing an incentive for fuel-intensive exports.
The Convention was negotiated in 1944 when issues of climate change and environmentalism were not on the international policy agenda. Not surprisingly, the shipping industry is not enthusiastic about closing this loophole.
The article points out, however, that both aviation and commercial shipping could be incorporated in the European Union’s carbon trading scheme, requiring shippers to reduce their carbon emissions. This would be a welcome advance and pave the way for more accurate pricing mechanisms to take into account the environmental stress accompanying the global shipments of food.
The other interesting point brought up in the article has to do with efforts on the part of industry to account for and provide information to consumers about the carbon footprint of food products. The British grocery store giant, Tesco is going to begin providing a carbon accounting on many of its house branded products beginning next month.
One of the problems associated with carbon labeling is getting an accurate measure for all of the carbon inputs for particular products. Systems of production, transportation, refrigeration, and distribution are highly complex and are likely to involve scores of contractors, sub-contractors, and subsidiaries, making the effort to access accurate data difficult.
Given the decentralized nature of these current efforts, information can be provided by individual companies, such as Tesco, but it may be difficult for consumers to trust the accuracy of carbon labels. More effective would be an international convention on carbon accounting–although I haven’t heard of any serious efforts to develop such an agreement.
Finally, the article provides some interesting fodder for rethinking our conceptions about local, national vs. global food as it pertains to carbon footprints. They offer a graphic that compares the carbon impact of two hypothetical bottles of wine: one from France, and another from California. When all of the carbon inputs are taken into account, the French bottle has a smaller carbon footprint–primarily due to the difference in modes of transport.