How food trade deals bloat UK’s carbon footprint

We export more salmon than we import

Food prices could rise by 48 per cent after Brexit, if the UK cannot agree a trade with the European Union, warned one headline in the past few days. Actually, that’s the tariff that could be imposed on imported beef mince, spurring the average tariff up to 20 per cent. But there is nothing like a scary headline to inspire us into reading a story.

The possible rise in food prices leads to the question – if we really must have Brexit, why import so much food? Why not “buy British”, rather than allow goods we grow in the United Kingdom to be exported?

A report called The Trade and Investment Requirements for Zero Carbon presents buying local as a solution to not Brexit, but reducing carbon footprint.

It was put together my members of the Green House Think Tank and gives some very startling examples of how the UK exports more – or as much – of some products as we import.

While it includes the importing of coal – to make steel – and how fast fashion plays its part, the most striking examples were about food.

Did you know, in 2019 we imported 85 per cent of our roses – a luxury items to us – from Africa? That’s a 4,000km journey. A main alternative supplier is the Netherlands. As a result, roses account for one of our top 10 airfreighted carbon emitting imports, producing 100,000 tonnes of CO2. We could, if we wanted to, dedicate enough land in the UK to grow those roses. It would also free up land for Africa to grow foodstuffs to feed itself

Likewise, last year the UK imported three out of every five apples that were sold to consumers and four out of every five pears. Yet we have the space in the UK to dedicate to orchards that could deal with that need fully. Orchards, on top of absorbing carbon, have multiple benefits for wildlife, such as encouraging insects, foliage and wild animals.

Just 16 per cent of fruit and 54 per cent of vegetables we eat in the UK are grown here, the report adds.

Perhaps the most shocking import and export example was about salmon. In 2019, we exported 125,000 tonnes of salmon (caught off the UK coastline). About 48,000 tonnes of this went by air, half of that going to the United States and China. Yet we imported 101,000 tonnes of salmon.

“If the UK could supply its domestic market first and switch exports from air to sea we could reduce transport emissions by 300-400 thousand tonnes of emissions for salmon alone,” the report concluded.

Surely the transport costs would be far reduced too? The reason we export it is because this salmon is highly sought after abroad. We also import lower grade salmon. So why not supply the UK’s needs first, says the report?

It seems shocking that globalisation and the price of international transportation of food means it can be cheaper to buy something that has come a long way. This is at the expense of our planet. On my one trip to southern Australia, I was stunned to find in the supermarket that prawns imported from China – thousands of miles away – were cheaper than “Australian” prawns.

It made no sense. Globalisation has brought us bigger demand for quality, perhaps. And supermarkets – modern living – has demanded higher standards of its food. Reports on the BBC recently highlighted how the hot weather had affected potato farmers negatively. One said he would have to throw away lots of potatoes because the dry weather meant they were not deemed perfect enough for sale in supermarkets.

Another farmer, who ran an apple orchard, had an abundance of big, juicy fruit because of the fine weather. This year, lots of friends and neighbours have had an abundance of tomatoes. Those who have never tried before – or who failed before – found more time, thanks to Covid-19 perhaps.

We have been know, internationally, as a nation of growers. Yet there surely must be a bigger financial cost to exporting goods, rather than distributing them throughout the UK.

It makes little sense for our trade to be producing 20 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year on imports, and another 10 million annually via exports, when much of it could be reduced.

If the UK Government, then, is serious about hitting net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we as a nation have to rethink our trade. Tax the carbon emissions to discourage imports and exports. Or regulate and also force producers and sellers to put the carbon footprint on the label.

Most of all we have to celebrate when our food is produced locally, with minimal carbon footprint. Not everyone has the chance to grow their own, but supermarkets can help push the message by using regional suppliers and, as some of them do, by not turning away “wonky veg”.