Why transport does not cost the earth

London, UK:  Locally produced food is not necessarily environmentally better than food that has travelled long distances, writes Jason Clay, WWF’s senior vice-president of market transformation in the Guardian newspaper.

“It is not surprising that local farmers are so valued today, to the point where “buy local” has become a rallying cry.  The media is full of stories about the perils of conventional, large-scale agriculture, pointing to simpler ways of producing food that appear to be more in harmony with nature,” he says.

It does not follow that if you reduce the number of miles travelled from farm to fork, you reduce the environmental impact, he says.  “The biggest environmental impacts occur on the farm, not in the transportation or refrigeration systems.  This is true for the United States and Europe, as well as globally.

“Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions illustrate this point.  Taking into account deforestation and habitat conversion, methane from animals, the use of high-energy inputs, volatilisation from soils and production itself, agriculture makes up about 30% of global GHG emissions, 85% of which comes from production on the farm.  It is now generally recognised that the agriculture industry contributes more GHG emissions than any other industry.

As the graphic below shows, for every basic food group – from meat to dairy, vegetables and cereals – the GHG impact of production on the farm far outweighs the impact of transport and refrigeration at the wholesale and retail end.

“Paradoxical though it may seem, large-scale agricultural production systems may actually have less negative environmental impact per unit of production than your local farm.  But they can always do better.

“To ensure production is measured and improved within these systems, WWF has initiated global roundtables.  Roundtables provide a forum for sharing practices between large and small systems, among other functions,” he says.