UK DEFRA: Comparative life-cycle assessment of food commodities

This is a “for reference” post on a study of the life cycle environmental footprint of UK-consumed food. The study was funded by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The scope of the study was limited to seven products that are produced in the UK in more than trivial quantities. No effort was invested in attempts to identify the most environmentally friendly international supplier. Instead representative sources were analyzed – e.g., NZ lamb, Spanish strawberries. Nevertheless, it seems to be a credible study.  

(…) A life cycle inventory (LCI) was first produced for each commodity and then a life cycle analysis (LCA) associating inventory data with specific environmental impacts. Each included established LCA criteria including: primary energy use (PEU); global warming potential (GWP); acidification; eutrophication; abiotic resource use; pesticide use; land requirement. Comparative inventories were produced from the first point of pre-production to the Retail Distribution Centre (RDC) in the UK for all seven commodities. The system boundary was through to the RDC, rather than the consumer, as all steps post RDC will be common to UK and non-UK food. The functional units are weight based (e.g. per tonne at the RDC). The study then progressed to a life cycle impact assessment, i.e. associating inventory data with specific environmental impacts. Estimates of the comparative effects on wider eco-services have also been made.

The Fallacy of Locally Grown Produce

Too often, environmentalists are satisfied with the mere appearance and accoutrements of environmentalism, without regard for the underlying facts. Apply some mathematics and some economics, and you’ll find that a smaller environmental footprint is the natural result of improved efficiency.

Brian Dunning, proprietor of Skepticblog, posted a May 2009 debunking the “food miles” myth and other environmental convictions advanced to justify the buy-local meme. A  well-written piece, excerpts:

Many years ago I did some consulting for a company that was then called Henry’s Marketplace, a produce retailer built on the founding principles of locally grown food. They had grown from a single family fruit stand into a chain of stores throughout southern California and Arizona that stuck to its guns and sold produce from small, local farmers. It’s a business beloved by its customers for its image of wholesome family goodness, community, and healthful products. (Henry’s has since gone through several acquisitions and is now called Henry’s Farmers Markets.)

Part of what I helped them with was the management of product at distribution centers. This sparked a question: I had assumed that their “locally grown produce” model meant that they used no distribution centers. What followed was a fascinating conversation where I learned part of the economics of locally grown produce. It was an eye-opening experience.

In their early days, they did indeed follow a true farmers’ market model. Farmers would either deliver their product directly to the store, or they would send a truck out to each farmer. As they added store locations, they continued practicing direct delivery between farmer and store. Adding a store in a new town meant finding a new local farmer for each type of produce in that town. Usually this was impossible: Customers don’t live in the same places where farms are found. Farms are usually located between towns. So Henry’s ended up sending a number of trucks from different stores to the same farm. Soon, Henry’s found that the model of minimal driving distance between each farm and each store resulted in a rat’s nest of redundant driving routes crisscrossing everywhere. What was intended to be efficient, local, and friendly, turned out to be not just inefficient, but grossly inefficient. Henry’s was burning huge amounts of diesel that they didn’t need to burn.

You can guess what happened. They began combining routes. This meant fewer, larger trucks, and less diesel burned. They experimented with a distribution center to serve some of their closely clustered stores. The distribution center added a certain amount of time and labor to the process, but it (a) still accomplished same-day morning delivery from farm to store, and (b) cut down on mileage tremendously. Henry’s added larger distribution centers, and realized even better efficiency. Today their model of distributing locally grown produce, on the same day it comes from the farm, is hardly distinguishable from the models of Wal-Mart or any other large retailer.

Here’s where it seems counterintuitive: If you look at the path traveled by any one given box of produce, it’s much longer than it used to be. It no longer travels in a single straight line from farm to store; it now travels the two long sides of the triangle in its path from farm to distribution center to store. But quite obviously, this narrow view omits the overall picture, where the stores are all stocked with produce that got there much more efficiently.

Locally grown produce is rarely efficient. Apply a little mathematics to the problem, and you’ll find that the ugly alternative of giant suburban distribution centers accomplishes the same thing – fresh produce into stores on the same day it’s picked – but with much less fuel burned.


 Don’t get me wrong, I love farmers’ markets. We go to our local one sometimes and it’s a fun family event for us. We love the giant, wonderful tomatoes and strawberries that you can’t get at the supermarket. I’d hate to see the experience replaced by the efficient alternative I just described, but then, I understand that farmers’ markets are more of a premium boutique community experience than an efficient (or “green”) way to buy food. The real reasons to enjoy your farmers’ market have nothing to do with it being somehow magically environmentally friendly. It’s the opposite.

Things that are harmful: organic food, food miles, …

It is remarkable what people contribute to the river of the Internet. Check out the contributions at “ Random Contrarian Insurgent Organization”. In particular, the captioned page I just found: 

(…) Food Miles  

A great way to encourage the growing of food in the least efficient and productive places, ensuring copious waste of resources and increased food prices for everyone (which as usual, mostly harm poor).

Also a great new way to keep poor farmers in developing countries from exporting to the most lucrative markets.

There is lots more, and excellent science-based references, e.g., to Steven Novella.

The Inefficiency of Local Food

We highly recommend this Steve Sexton essay on Freakonomics. Steve is a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and resource economics, and a regular Freakonomics contributor. Excerpt:

(…) Amid heightened concern about global climate change, it has become almost conventional wisdom that we must return to our agricultural roots in order to contain the carbon footprint of our food by shortening the distance it travels from farm to fork, and by reducing the quantity of carbon-intensive chemicals applied to our mono-cropped fields.

But implicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a “relocalized” food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.

Specialization and Trade

Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.

Read the whole thing. You can read more of Steve’s research papers here at

A Green Revolution for Africa?

Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” examines the latest World Bank “World Development Report: Agriculture for Development”. I’ve not yead read the source report, but Borlaug highlights the key reasons that have prevented progress in Africa — soils, climate and lack of rivers for irrigation resources — but poor governance in central:

…Environmental degradation in African agriculture has also been much greater. Increasing population pressures have overwhelmed traditional systems of shifting cultivation to restore or recycle plant nutrients. This has resulted in a progressive — and now often dramatic — degradation of the soil resource base, while fertilizer use has hardly increased at all, and is the lowest in the world. Erroneous views about what constitutes sustainable agriculture have polarized discussions about the need for organic and chemical fertilizers, and hindered African governments in setting the right priorities for soil fertility management.

A broader and more integrated perspective is needed for African agriculture, one that focuses on the entire farming enterprise — food and cash crops, livestock and value-added processing. Even so, the World Development Report underscores the importance of transforming staple-food production. Because such crops are the most widely grown, productivity improvements have huge payoffs, both to producers and consumers. Much greater attention must also be given to post-production market linkages — especially to grain markets and agro-industrial food processing that offer off-farm employment opportunities.

Substantially greater investments in infrastructure — roads, electrical power, water resources — underlie all other efforts in rural and agricultural development. Unless infrastructure is improved, there is little hope for real progress in reversing the alarming food insecurity trends or in making agriculture an engine of economic growth.

One World Bank statistic is especially alarming. In Asia, agriculture R&D investment has increased three-fold over the past 20 years, but in Africa, only by 20% (it has actually declined in about half the countries). Building research talent is one of Africa’s most urgent imperatives, and even with adequate investments, this will take time and new vision.

R&D is especially needed to address Africa’s special production circumstances. At least half of the continent’s poor and hungry people are smallholder farmers in marginal lands, where agriculture is more costly and risky due to agro-climatic stresses and/or remoteness from markets. New science and technology, including the tools of biotechnology, will be needed to develop crops better able to withstand climatic stresses such as drought, heat and flooding. Such research will also contribute to helping the world prepare for future production effects anticipated from global warming.

The World Development Report is a milestone contribution to placing agriculture once again at the center of the development agenda. Achieving this priority shift will be fundamental to poverty reduction and sustainable development.