While Australia’s new Foreign Minister is amassing a few more carbon flight miles, he is keen to make climate change central to his diplomatic efforts. And a study by CSIRO is finding, contrary to popular belief, that ”food miles” is a poor indicator of food’s total greenhouse gas emissions, or ”carbon footprint”. More important is the way our food is farmed and how far we drive to buy it. Read More
Nick O’Malley in Sydney Morning Herald (14 April 2012):
”THAT was more fun than addressing the shires association,” said Bob Carr, standing in the corridor outside conference room 2 in the North Lawn Building at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Moments earlier he had spoken for the first time at an open session of the UN as Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, fulfilling a lifelong ambition. At the end of the day he would dine with Henry Kissinger.
Though not formally a General Assembly, the ponderously titled ”Thematic Debate on Disaster Risk Mitigation” is a big deal at the UN, was opened by the president of the General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, and was attended by representatives of nearly every nation.
The issues raised by the group will be crucial to the Rio+20 environmental summit this year and Senator Carr is keen to make climate change central to his diplomatic efforts. Earlier in the week he told the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, that Australia would be happy to give evidence on behalf of a group of nations led by Palau which are lobbying for international legal action on climate change.
The group wants the UN to adopt a resolution seeking an opinion from the International Court of Justice that would mean nations had to take action on climate change under existing treaties. Senator Carr told the Herald that Australia was in a good position to offer its support despite the nation’s coal exports because it had adopted a carbon tax.
Throughout the week he met representatives from around the world to lobby as part of Australia’s effort to secure a seat on the Security Council.
He also attended a private dinner at the home of Dr Kissinger, whom he befriended during the Sydney Olympics. Other guests included Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, as well as New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
Natalie Craig in Sydney Morning Herald (15 April 2012):
TWO brands of olive oil, one from Australia, the other shipped 16,000 kilometres from Italy, sit on a supermarket shelf.
Most eco-friendly shoppers would reach for the Australian oil. But despite burning less fossil fuel to get here, it may not be better for the planet.
Contrary to popular belief, ”food miles”, or the distance food has travelled before we buy it, is a poor indicator of our food’s total greenhouse gas emissions, or ”carbon footprint”.
More important is the way our food is farmed and produced, and how far we drive to buy it.
CSIRO studies are expected to show how emissions from farming and food production eclipse those from food freight.
”Local food can often have a higher carbon footprint than food from afar,” says principal researcher Brad Ridoutt.
He says even home-grown vegetables, with ”zero food miles”, do not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint than those bought in the supermarket.
”With my veggies, I drive to Bunnings to buy fertiliser, and I go away for the weekend and forget to water them, and in the end I only harvest a few things that I can actually eat.
”By contrast, big producers, who can invest in the latest energy-efficient, water-efficient technology, and make use of all the parts of food, can be much more efficient,” he says.
Of course, transporting food from producer to retailer still burns fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas emissions, in turn accelerating global warming. But freight emissions are only a fraction of those released during production, meaning even imported food, sustainably produced, can have a smaller carbon footprint than local alternatives.
The CSIRO research, focusing on farm and production emissions, as well as and other environmental impacts, should ultimately allow for comparisons between production and freight emissions.
The only Australian study to make this comparison was by Aldi and Planet Ark in in 2010. It found that a brand of Italian olive oil had a carbon footprint about 14 per cent smaller, per 100 millilitres, than that of a local brand, despite travelling about ten times as far, mainly because of its steel tin packaging and low-impact, traditional farm production.
British studies have also shown shoppers are likely to be responsible for fewer emissions if they buy organic fruit shipped from New Zealand, and beans air-freighted from manual farms in Kenya, rather than British equivalents grown in gas-heated greenhouses.
In Australia, until the research into food production emissions is complete, it is impossible to compare the different carbon footprints from production and freight.
However, two existing studies provide a rough guide. In 2008, Brunswick environmental group CERES calculated the food miles and corresponding emissions of an average basket of Melbourne groceries.
Carbon consultants Carbon Neutral used a 2005 CSIRO study, Balancing Act, and other government data, to assess the average emissions created by the farming and production of foods in Australia, including on-farm transport such as tractors, for its online carbon calculator.
The examples in the CERES paper show that fruit and vegetables (excluding juices) travelled an average of 745 kilometres from farm gate to shop, creating an average of 49 grams of ”carbon dioxide equivalent” (CO2-e) emissions per kilo of fruit.
According to the Carbon Neutral calculator, the CO2-e emissions from farming and production of fruit and vegetables, per kilo, were about 10 times as high, or 480 grams.
The analysis also shows beef travelled an average of 298 kilometres to reach Melbourne, producing about 20 grams of emissions a kilo. But production emissions, per kilo, were about 1550 times higher, at 31 kilograms – most likely because of cows’ flatulence, which releases methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Carbon Neutral consultant Scott Favacho says it isn’t strictly an ”apples for apples” comparison. He noted that the CERES study only accounted for emissions from road freight, and did not assess refrigerated trucks, or overseas freight.
Newer studies suggest meat production emissions are also likely to be lower than previously thought.
Nonetheless, Mr Favacho concludes that our comparison ”does suggest that the greenhouse gas emissions from freight within Australia form a very small component of the food’s total carbon footprint”.
Consumers in Britain, France and the US, are already aware of the minimal impact of ”food miles” compared to production emissions thanks to ”eco-labels”. But in Australia, many consumers remain wedded to the ”food miles” concept.
In Australia in 2010, Aldi put ”carbon reduction labels”, certified by the British Carbon Trust, on its olive oil range. But neither Aldi nor any other company has released more food products with the labels, and a spokeswoman for Aldi said customer response had been minimal.
”We found that consumer behaviour change, such as switching to these products has been relatively minor,” she said. ”We had hoped that others in the industry would have moved quickly to adopt this consistent system to raise more consumer awareness.”
Regardless of whether they believe in ”food miles”, shoppers at the Victoria Market shudder at the thought of buying imported food.
”The idea of buying garlic from China, it frightens me a little bit,” says public servant Loreto Mills.
IT consultant Paul drove from Cheltenham to shop at the Victoria Market on his way to work: ”Look, I’m not a hippie, but I won’t buy fruit from overseas, and I try not to buy it from interstate,” he said. ”I do like the idea of food not having to travel too far before I eat it, for the flavour, but also the [reduced] food miles.”
David Carruthers is owner of St Kilda restaurant SlowDown!@HarleyCourt, which opened in 2010, offering only food grown or produced in Victoria.
”I agree that food miles alone is not the answer … Choosing suppliers carefully, talking to them about how they grow produce and how they look after their animals is important to me. I like to be able to tell the story of the food on the plate and … connect the grower or farmer to the customer.”