Air freighted food; freshly flown in?
(from an article by Rose Bridger, in Issue 18, Autumn 2007, of “Jellied Eel”
– page 10)
While the media fixates on the rise in, and environmental impacts of, passenger
flights, worldwide air cargo is rising faster and a lot of the development at
airports is cargo related. Worldwide, the largest and fastest growing air cargo
sector is ‘perishables’ which means cargo that requires temperature control.
Industry estimates for the annual increase are creeping upwards from about 10%.
About 80% of this perishables sector is food and flowers. Most of this is primary
produce, but processed foods is a growing sector and encompasses everything from
trimmed vegetables or peeled and diced fruit through to highly processed chilled
products such as ready meals. As always, the food chain is complex to unravel,
and air freight is not as direct as claimed. There are often connecting flights
and distribution is entangled with the geographical dispersion which affects the
food chain generally.
The Soil Association’s recent Air Freight Green Paper outlines some of the complexities
of calculating the environmental impacts, and although the relative impacts vary
greatly, air freight generates up to 177 times more greenhouse gases than shipping
for the distance travelled. Perishable foods also require a chill–chain of refrigeration
from farm to plate which is predominantly fossil fuel dependent.
As well as retrospective calculations of the impacts of food air freight, we
need to look ahead at infrastructure development at and aligned with airports.
The infrastructure to enable ever lengthier air freighted food chains goes up
and expands like Lego, and is often outside the realm of explicit policy.
We need to look at where the food is flown in from. There is expansion of export
capacity for air freight of food and flowers in many countries, including the
poorest with widespread hunger. Kenya’s well established horticulture and floriculture
air freight exports are hailed as a successful example of development, but it
remains classified by the World Food Programme as a low income, food deficit country.
Aggressive export competition means other countries going down a similar development
path may not be able to achieve even the relatively high export earnings compared
to traditional commodities. It is doubtful that the best way to lift people out
of poverty is to fly escalating quantities of food out over their heads.