There is a debate about whether we should buy food from poor countries – which helps farmers, but might damage the environment.  Well-meaning people are torn.

Ideally, the price of food in the shops would reflect the full social marginal cost of producing it and transporting it.  So beans from Kenya would be more expensive if they use up more of the world's resources – including carbon emmissions from transport – than beans from a Spanish hothouse.   If taxes were levied at levels and in ways that reflected externalities such as pollution, then we could let the market decide.

In the meantime, should we be buying food imported from Africa? I think we should, for three reasons.

First, it is not clear that food that has travelled a long way is worse for the environment than food grown locally.  For many products, the energy needed to grow food locally – such as tomatoes in a hothouse – is more than the energy needed to grown them where the sun shines, even when you take into account the energy needed to transport them.  Flowers grown in European greenhouses result in more CO2 emmissions than flowers grown in Africa and flown in.

Second, the energy needed to transport food is a tiny proportion of greenhouse gas emissions.  It is way less important than, for example, putting your appliances into standby mode, or making one fewer business trip a year.

Third, millions of people depend for their livelihoods – and that of their children – on growing and selling food and flowers for the UK market.  UK consumers spend a million pounds a day on food and vegetables from African farmers.  If we deny Africans the opportunity to trade their way out of poverty by refusing to buy their agricultural products, then we will consign another generation of Africans to poverty and handouts from the rich.  In Kenya, where half the population lives on less than 50p a day – Kenyan farmers can earn £1000 a year by growing fine beans.  Tanzanian famers earn twice as much selling baby corn to UK supermarkets as they do selling maize locally.

More than two thirds of Africa's poor depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.  In our determination to tackle climate change and reduce carbon emissions, let us start with sacrifices we can easily make ourselves, before we deny them the chance of a decent life.


Owen Barder

Owen is CEO of Precision Agriculture for Development. He has worked in the office of the UK Prime Minister, the British Treasury, the Department for International Development; and at the Center for Global Development.


Tom · January 6, 2007 at 4:57 pm

I largely agree with the points made.  However, I dislike the phrase ‘way less important than putting your appliances on standby mode.’

If you’re going to use language like ‘way less important’ it should be backed up by data. But as many people, including the likes of the Economist, have documented, data on the energy consumption of TVs on standby is sketchy at best. Indeed, for too long the government has been quoting one or two studies, that by common consent don’t really stand up to scrutiny.

This is not to say we shouldn’t switch our TVs off, but by the same token neither should we overestimate the impact of doing this.

luis_enrique · January 7, 2007 at 5:29 pm

very interesting – do you have links to the data you used on energy consumption of various crops?

Owen · January 17, 2007 at 8:42 am

Luis  – Take a look at this paper for the evidence on energy consumption of growing crops in Africa and transporting them.

Tom – Fair point.  I just wanted to say that the magnitudes are small.


luis_enrique · January 21, 2007 at 7:52 pm

Thanks Owen

Craig Mackintosh · February 13, 2007 at 8:25 pm

Hello Owen, I found your blog on a related search, and thought I’d drop by and say "hi". This article I just posted may interest some of your readers. Regards.

katie · February 25, 2007 at 3:52 pm

hiya i was doing my homework on this and found it very helpful thankyou » Occasional Links 28 · January 16, 2007 at 8:56 am

[…] 3) Owen Barder tackles the difficult question of whether we should buy food from poor countries, which eventhough it helps farmers, also damages the environment. […]

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