Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Use of difficult to 'understand' jargon and acronyms are becoming fashionable these days and the modern IT society thrives on it. Neo-literates(computer savvy) always throw these jargon at old-literates of older generation routinely and the latter has invariably no clues regarding this modern vocabulary. While one can understand the prevalence of this practice amongst younger generation of the IT era, what is disturbing is the mindless, often irrelevant terminologies that creep into other areas of science. Recently the jargon that has gained traction, especially in Europe is FOOD MILES, in heated discussions on global warming and this has come out from the universal concerns on green house emissions as reflected by the Kyoto Protocol signed by many countries to reverse the continuous trend in global warming.

Food miles are supposed to be a tool being propounded by some of the advanced countries to brand those foods that are exported over long distances as big green house gas emitters. It measures the distance a food travels from its point of production to the ultimate consumption table. The assumption is that transportation by air, shipping and road, all consume fossil fuels, releasing enormous quantities of green house gases including carbon dioxide. Thus a food exported from India to USA travels over 15000 km consuming fossil fuels which add on to the carbon foot prints of the product and hence not very desirable. If this logic is accepted world trade in foods will have to stop at some time if the planet is to be saved, according to the protagonists of this system of emission auditing. In a recent critical analysis, it was brought out very clearly that transportation accounts for only 11% of the green house emissions of food products, while that for growing, harvesting and processing works out to 83%.

The input intensive agriculture of the west cannot avoid the blame that the crops they raise are much more energy intensive than that in most of the developing countries. It must shock the conscience of the world that a typical house-hold in the west is responsible for emissions of 8.1 metric tons of CO2 equivalent attributed directly to food consumption. In contrast the corresponding figure in the third world is less than 10% of this value! Another study shows how the mutton transported from Auckland, New Zealand to London, UK scores over the same product raised locally on the carbon scale. As against 1520 pounds of CO2 equivalents released by the New Zealand product during production as well as transportation over 11000 miles by ocean freighters to UK, local mutton was raised after expending 6280 pounds of CO2 equivalents. The reason is simple. While New Zealand lamb is raised on green pastures, UK farmers use animal feeds, nutrients, medicines, atmosphere control etc expending fossil based energy at every turn responsible for greater CO2 release.

A rough estimate of green house gas emission by different foods indicates that red meat is the biggest culprit accounting for 30% of all emissions linked to foods while dairy, cereals. fruits & vegetables and poultry accounted for 18%, 11%, 11%and 10% of emissions respectively. Of course adequate allowance needs to be given when such audits are undertaken in a country like India where energy intensive agricultural operations are still not very significant and CO2 emissions could be much below the figures reported in the west.


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