food and grocery retailing

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Image source: Taiga Company.

Image source: Taiga Company.

1) If you buy just one new appliance in 2010, make it a really efficient fridge-freezer. The improvements in the energy use of the best fridge-freezers have been really impressive in the last few years. If you have an old refrigerator, it may be responsible for as much as a sixth of your electricity bill. A good new machine might use less than a half as much power, particularly if it is not too large. A second benefit is that by choosing to buy a really efficient refrigerator you will be sending a clear signal to the manufacturers that energy consumption matters. An impressive new web site – www.energytariff.co.uk – allows you to compare the electricity used by almost all the appliances currently in UK shops. You can make well-informed choices from your computer.

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Go green, go vegan

Lord Stern says the meat industry damages the environment. Image source: VirtualTourist.com

Lord Stern says the meat industry damages the environment. Image source: VirtualTourist.com

Clearly irritated that his argument in an interview in the Times had been boiled down to a ‘go veggie to save the planet’ headline, Nicholas Stern has issued a clarifying statement:

I think that once people understand the great risks that climate change poses, they will naturally want to choose products and services that cause little or no emissions of greenhouse gases, which means ‘low-carbon consumption’. This will apply across the board, including electricity, heating, transport and food. A diet that relies heavily on meat production results in higher emissions than a typical vegetarian diet. Different individuals will make different choices. However, the debate about climate change should not be dumbed down to a single slogan, such as ‘give up meat to save the planet’.

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Image source: flourish.org.

Image source: flourish.org.

A study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency concluded that:

there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.[1]

Yes and no. What the study actually shows is that organic food typically does have higher levels of important nutrients but the high degree of variability in the measured levels means that we cannot be 95% sure that these higher levels are not the outcome of chance. The Food Standards Agency and the report’s authors have misled people interested in this topic and should revise the summaries of their work.

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Copyright: SyB - Fotolia.com
Copyright: SyB – Fotolia.com.

We didn’t make much progress reducing emissions when times were good. Will the looming depression makes things worse or better? The discussion of this issue, at least in the UK, tends to be superficial. The only question asked seems to be ‘will people buy less eco-bling when times are hard?’

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The Goodall household is well-trained. Compostable products get put on the compost heap. Plastic bottles end up in the recycling bin. Where should Innocent’s new smoothie bottles made from bio-degradable corn starch go? Surprisingly, the answer is into landfill.

Innocent, the company with one of the purest brands in the UK, has made a mistake. For the last year it has used a new material called PLA for one of its ranges of drinks. It admitted last week that it would cease to use this bio-plastic later this year. But on its website it was still making some surprising claims. It says that the bottles made from this bio-plastic break down in garden compost heaps. They will not. PLA needs to be heated for several days to temperatures far greater than those in a domestic compost bin before it begins to rot. The bottles would break down in a commercial composter, but very few local authorities operate one of these plants. Innocent’s ethical consumers are going to find a large number of plastic bottles at the bottom of their compost heap next spring.

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A recent Henley Centre survey suggested that 86% of people were eager to buy goods with less packaging, up 20% in the last two years. Nothing arouses as much spontaneous anger among British householders as the ‘over-packaging’ of foods. Recent newspaper headlines conveyed righteous indignation about the policies of UK retailers, in particular the failure to make all packaging recyclable.

The newspapers completely missed the point. Three issues need to be emphasised:

  • Food packaging is a vanishingly small fraction of UK waste. Waste food is far more important.
  • Good packaging is vital: it helps protect food from damage and helps lengthen its shelf life.
  • Recyclable food packaging may actually be bad for climate change.

Making these points too loudly can get you lynched in some middle-class areas of Britain. Nevertheless, it needs to be said repeatedly that packaging, particularly of food, is not the environmental disaster it is made out to be.

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Only 1% of imported organic food comes by air. But the Soil Association says that air freight ‘can generate 177 times’ the CO2 of shipping. Air transport is necessary for some fruit and delicate vegetables which provide a vital source of income in some poor countries.

The Association was caught in a dilemma. It didn’t want to give its valuable imprimatur to foods that caused climate damage but neither did it want to impoverish poor tropical communities.

It carried out a detailed and thoughtful consultation with stakeholders. It seems a model of its kind. The consultation produced a consensus that air freight was only acceptable if the products were farmed in a way that brought development to the local community. In essence the Association is saying that only ‘Fairtrade’ products will be able to carry its valuable label. It won’t be enough just to meet the ordinary standards for organic agriculture.

Peter Melchett, the policy director of the Association, said that the ‘results of our very widespread consultation show that most people in the North and the South say that they only support air freight if it delivers real environmental and social benefits. The linking of organic and ethical or Fairtrade standards does that’.

The Soil Association will now move to ratify this decision, which went against central government advice, at least as expressed in a recent speech by a minister.

In the same press release it also announced a move to involve the Carbon Trust in providing a ‘footprint’ for organic foods (please see the article on organic food and carbon emissions in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #1). It said it would move towards carbon labelling of organic foods (please see the article on Tesco and Wal-Mart in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #2 for reasons why we think this is a mistake).

In a slightly surprising move, it also announced that it would seek to ‘actively encourage people to eat less meat’. Since beef cultivation is an important source of emissions, this makes good sense, but the Association is taking a risk by suggesting people should change their diet.

It also intends to review whether heated glasshouses are appropriate recipients of organic labels. This last point is well overdue. The carbon footprint of a food from a Dutch heated glasshouse is likely to be far greater than an air-freighted equivalent grown in the tropics.

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Many companies selling to UK families have a strong sense that consumer demands are shifting rapidly. M&S recently talked to Carbon Commentary about its perceptions of changes in attitudes and behaviour. This article compares its results with those of a survey by the Henley Centre in summer 2007.

During the last year or so, the percentage of ‘green zealots’ in M&S research has risen from 3-4% to nearer 8%. Henley also sees a figure of 8% for the two greenest groups ‘principled pioneers’ and ‘vocal activists’. A further 31% (Henley Centre) or 30-35% (M&S) are actively concerned and want to adjust their behaviour. There has also been a big growth in this group in the last year.

In both surveys another third are aware of environmental and ethical issues, but are unlikely to take active steps unless pushed. A final quarter or so don’t care very much. M&S says that they are ‘struggling’. Henley calls them ‘disengaged’.

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The rivalry between Tesco and Wal-Mart is well known. Tesco’s imminent entry to the US heartland of the world’s largest retailer may have created an extra edge to the battle. And, unsurprisingly, the two giants are squaring up over carbon issues as well as over such things as employee conditions and global sourcing policies.

Tesco said earlier this year that it would eventually put carbon labels on all its 70,000 food lines. It has been trying to find way of doing this using Life Cycle Analysis, putting a greenhouse gas cost on every element of a product’s move from farm to plate. This was always a hugely over-ambitious project and recent weeks have seen the company drift back from its early optimism. Now Wal-Mart has come up with a similarly impossible dream – to use the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) to assess and manage the energy footprint of its suppliers. These big retailers know that they have to be seen to be doing something about greenhouse gases, so they have both launched incomplete schemes that will achieve little.

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The evidence is not quite clear enough that organic food is better for the atmosphere.

The debate on whether organic agriculture reduces greenhouse gas emissions is a lively and sometimes acrimonious affair. The calculations are complex, the results depend on myriad factors that are difficult to quantify, and much research remains to be done. Those who give unequivocal answers to the question ‘is organic better?’ may not be recognising the extraordinary uncertainty that still surrounds many aspects of agriculture. Rather than produce a simple answer, this note offers a statement of the competing cases.

This topic has been widely researched but has produced very varying answers. There is certainly no consensus. In general, organic farming seems to be slightly better for the atmosphere than conventional cultivation, but for every ten studies that say this, five say something different. Almost all the conclusions are the subject of passionate debate.

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