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The Truth About Food: Miles, Cheap Labour & Emissions

The Truth About Food: Miles, Cheap Labour & Emissions

This week, we were stunned to learn just how far some preserved pears had travelled. The news comes to us thanks to our friends at earthly education (you can check out their amazing Instagram page here), who reposted a comment English naturalist and television producer Chris Packham had made on his small tub of pears.

Now, this might not sound too bad on the surface, but in perspective, it’s nuts or maybe just plain fruity. Chris’ pears had travelled more than 20,000 kilometres, crossing the Pacific twice to get to his local supermarket. And the reason for that is this; although Chris’ pears were grown in Argentina, they were packaged in Thailand. 

The whole story.

To put this story in perspective, pears are hardy fruits that grow in most climates. They tolerate heavier, sandy soils, with moderate amounts of rain and a good amount of sun and cold weather. England and New Zealand are ripe for pears to grow.

Pears also grow remarkably well in the Rio Negro Valley of Argentina, where reportedly some of the ‘best pears in the world’ are grown in expert soil. This is where Chris’ pears were originally from, and according to reports on the region, this is not an exaggeration. Argentina boasts some incredibly fertile soil and a 1,000mm yearly rainfall average. The country also has 27.5 million hectares of agricultural crops, most of which are soybeans, wheat, corn, sunflower, sorghum and barley. Internationally it is among one of the world's largest agrarian countries, particularly considering its smaller landmass compared to larger agricultural nations. 

But none of that explains why fruit from Argentina is sold in countries already capable of producing fruit. 

Well, compared to most civilised nations, like the UK and the US, the value exchange on the pesos is much lower. High taxation and hefty tariffs continue to lower the value of trade with Argentina. This leads to a volatile farming situation where many producers struggle to make ends meet. As this balance shifts, we might expect to see our pears exported from elsewhere, but for now, the price of obtaining cheap, plentiful land, inexpensive and excessive labour costs and the high capital investment on Argentinian farms make the country a valuable resource for affordable growth practices. 


The ugly truth.

Here is where the ugly truth about our food comes into play because the world food market is driven by extreme price competitiveness. And this competitiveness extends to all areas of production.

Hence why pears grown in Argentina are packaged in Thailand, where the cost of labour is again cheaper, as is the production of plastic packaging. Or, as Eduard Àlvarez, professor of Economics and Business Studies at the Open University of Catalonia, puts it;

"Since the globalization process began, there are so-called transnational companies that minimize costs by taking each part of the production process to the country where it is cheaper”.

So, in one instance, the land itself is cheaper to grow on, while in another, the labour costs are cheaper still, to the extent that shipping food from farm to packaging factory mitigates the price of the shipping fuel. For the most part, food tariffs only specify certain specific ingredients, which have to be stipulated by the country, allowing large corporations to shift their organisational base to avoid heavy taxation simply. So food tariffs and the price of importation become negligible for large-scale multi-national corporations.


The food trade.

This type of food production isn’t limited to pears either. Canned peppers and artichokes from Peru, for example, have been packaged in France and sold overseas. Meat grown in China uses soybeans from Brazil and chemicals from Canada for vegetable growth, with coal imported from Australia and Indonesia and machinery from Germany to manufacture the slaughterhouse process. With heavy domestic transport costs, Fonterra exports its packaging to Dairy Works, increasing the transport needed to get your cheese from the farm to your table. In each case, numerous international touch points rack up the environmental cost of any one food item (although meat is clearly the highest offender on the list, with 57% more in emissions than other foodstuffs). 



This international trafficking also increases the number of preservatives necessary for transporting fruit. While the jury is still undecided on the negative effects of these artificial preserving agents, some links suggest they can worsen existing health conditions or cause heart and colon-related diseases, including cancer, with prolonged use. Cases are generally found more in meat-based products than fruits or vegetables, especially when the nitrate level is artificially risen above normal. Meat, particularly red meat, is also known to cause colon-related cancers generally, so it’s hard to make a definite statement either way. 


Locally grown.

What is obvious, though, is that pesticides, preserving agents and heavy transportation all contribute to the environmental cost of these pears, not to mention the heavy use of plastics in packaging. Alternatively, locally-grown produce requires little in the way of preservatives, packaging or travel costs. Locally grown and organically sourced fruits may even avoid the pesticides altogether, for a naturally grown product at the risk of some insectile warfare. 

According to Carbon Brief:

“For consumers, in addition to shifting towards a plant-based diet, eating local seasonal alternatives is ideal, especially among affluent countries.”

The greatest CO2 emissions come from burning fossil fuels. While the growth and maintenance of meat-based products are higher still than fruit, the amount of shipping involved in multi-national food organisations is shockingly wasteful, with food miles accounting for a fifth of the total emissions in food production. High-income nations are responsible for 52% of those international food miles, although they only represent 12.5% of the population and, in a single year, will produce three billion tons of CO2. 

We should add to this environmental crisis the socioeconomic problems with playing the market and supporting underpaid labour laws and price inflation tactics, which Argentina is struggling with now. When economies become unprofitable, these corporations move on, surviving the downfall of entire economies.

The sad conclusion to this whole story is that multi-nationals can always price local farmers out of the market. To avoid this, we need higher tariffs on food exportation and tax breaks for local, small farmers. It shouldn’t be cheaper to underpay people and flaunt the UN’s COP19 environmental agreement. Because, in the end, we’ll all pay the price for our multi-national food empire soon.

Sources cited:

  • “5 Side Effects of Preservatives You Must Know About” on NDTV FOOD. Date Published: 24th October, 2017. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3K4IgRs
  • “Agriculture in Argentina: Crops, Productive areas” on SURdelSUR.com. Date Accessed: 25th March, 2023. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3lJk1yU
  • “Argentina: Logistics Costs Slowed The Export Of Blueberries” on IBO. Date Published: 29th October, 2021. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3LPqrXC
  • Allen, Paul. “The facts about food miles” on good food. Date Accessed: 25th March, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3LSmlOM
  • Benoit-Celeyrette, Cécilia. “The pear in Argentina” on FRuiTR0P online. Date Published: 27th January, 2017. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3z2RNCf
  • Burry, Maja. “Country of origin food labelling comes into effect in supermarkets” on RNZ. Date Published: 11th February 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3LRchpc
  • Campos, Marco. “Argentina’s fresh fruit exports grow in 2020” on Blue Book Services. Date Published: 24th November, 2020. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3K8EuXl
  • Collie, Meghan. “Here’s how eating artificial preservatives can affect your health” on Global NEWS. Date Published: 22nd August, 2019. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3K9oQuN
  • Dauthy, Mircea Enachescu. “5.3 Chemical preservation” in Fruit and vegetable processing, No. 119. Date Published: 1995. 
  • Dussi, M. C., Leskovar, M., Giacinti, M., Dussi, S. E. “Pear Industry In Argentina: Searching For A Better Competitiveness” in International Society for Horticultural Science, No. 475, Iss. 2, pp. 35-44. Date Published: 1998. 
  • “Food Miles” on Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program. Date Accessed: 25th March, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3K4ch3M
  • Groenwald, Anneli. “Farming in Argentina” on farmer’s weekly. Date Published: 1st July, 2013. Site Link: http://bit.ly/42GxW9C
  • Harris, Linnea. “What Are Food Miles?” on Connect 4 Climate. Date Published: 27th April, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/42IHssz
  • “How Far Does Your Food Travel to Get to Your Plate?” on Foodwise. Date Accessed: 25th March, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/40g51au
  • Kent Ro Systems. “The Harmful Effects of Preservatives on your Health” on Kent Health Care Products. Date Accessed: 25th March, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3FQLup6
  • Li, Mengyu, Jia, Nanfei, Lenzen, Manfred, Malik, Arunima, Wei, Liyuan, Jin, Yutong, Raubenheimer, David. “Global food-miles account for nearly 20% of total food-systems emissions” in Nature Food, Vol. 3, pp. 445-453. Date Published: 20th June, 2022.
  • Michaelis, Kristen. “How Far Does Your Food Travel” on Food Renegade. Date Published: 31st July, 2020. Site Link: http://bit.ly/40wINko
  • “Part I: Pears grown in Argentina, packed in Thailand” on The Lunar Society. Date Accessed: 25th March, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3ZnHJi0
  • Somervell, Jenny. “10 things you need to know about growing pears” on thisNZlife. Date Accessed: 25th March, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/40E2Ygx
  • Tandon, Ayesha. “‘Food miles’ have larger climate impact than thought, study suggests” on Carbon Brief. Date Published: 20th June, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/42FzuQV
  • “The journey of a pear: why there are foods that travel thousands of kilometers before reaching the supermarket” on The Limited Times. Date Published: 9th September, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3TM2DGm
  • “Uses of Shipping Containers in the Fruit & Vege Industry” on Kiwi Box. Date Accessed: 25th March, 2023. Site Link: https://bit.ly/40DUXbn
  • Yi, Qiangyi, Wu, Wenbin, Tang, Huajun. “Increased food-miles and transport emissions” in Nature Food, Vol. 4, pp. 207-208. Date Published: 23rd February, 2023.


About the Author

About the author - meet Earthan James McCulloch 

James is a literary student and environmental enthusiast who likes thinking about the better futures we could have (and those we best avoid). When not playing with other people’s dogs or taking long, mindful walks, he’s usually found reading and writing, often at the local library. You can check him out on his blog for something a little different, where he talks about all things literary or otherwise.

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