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The food miles debate

In many developing countries smallholder export horticulture is proving to be a powerful new engine for growth in rural economies. Kenya has been one of the quickest to develop as a supplier of air-freighted fresh vegetables from smallholder fields to consumers in Europe. More than a million livelihoods have been created in farm production and a further three million in associated employment. Now Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia and others want to follow suit.

However with rising concerns over climate change, consumers, environmentalists and politicians in the North are debating whether it makes environmental sense to continue to import foodstuffs with high food miles. For the smallholder farmers who have invested so much to meet the standards demanded for export, the danger that their produce could become an environmental pariah is deeply worrying. At a recent workshop in Kenya, New Agriculturist invited farmers, exporters and horticultural advisors to respond, either as individuals or as groups, to a number of key areas of contention in the food miles debate.

Fuelling global warming?

Packed boxes of beans ready for export from Kenya (WRENmedia)
Packed boxes of beans ready for export from Kenya

Global warming has so many angles to it. Whatever emissions we cause by the airfreight of our produce is far less than the pollution and damage caused by the lifestyles in the rich countries. It is not fair to punish us. We want trade not aid to better ourselves.
Russell N'gan'ga, Chairman, Nandarasi Gate Self-help Group of 200 farmer members and growers of mange tout for the UK

I would wonder whether stopping to export our food to Europe would stop the planes flying and whether that would really reduce the carbon emissions anyway.
Virginia Mwai, Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya

Why are we only considering food miles? How about all the people who go on holiday in February for a weekend to Tenerife? A lot of our freight goes on passenger planes. If we did not send the freight would the passenger planes still fly? Of course they would. So the fact that we have got freight on a passenger plane is actually not adding to the carbon miles. It is going anyway because there are some passengers coming back from holiday.
Group 1

I think air freight of Kenyan vegetables to Europe is minuscule compared to the burden of people in Europe going on holiday.
Kevin Billing, DFID-funded Business Services Market Development Programme (BSMDP), Kenya

It's in the balance...

We use hoes, we use pangas, we are using human power to be able to weed these fields to produce the food that is exported. We are not using tractors because mostly smallholders are the ones who are growing fruit and vegetable for export. So our contributions to global warming are very minimal.
Lusike Wasilwa, Assistant Director for Horticulture and Industrial Crops, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI)

In Kenya we did a life cycle analysis to try to understand the amount of energy that is used to produce green beans in Africa. And we also looked at what is the comparable production energy used for production in the UK. And we found that in fact energy used in production in both circumstances is exactly the same. We do need to add onto that the carbon emissions from flying, but even so, this is not a smoking gun for the export horticulture industry.
James McGregor, Research Economist, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

A lot of emissions of CO2 come out from the greenhouses in Britain, which will be more detrimental to the environment than what comes from production in Kenya. Two, agricultural systems in UK are mechanised and that also means production of more carbon dioxide. Small-scale farmers in Kenya are, we believe, more efficient producers than those in the UK.
T.K. Mutiso, horticulture exporter

If the same production of flowers or horticultural produce is done in Europe, which will be done in plastic houses or greenhouses, then the rate of CO2 emissions will be much higher and therefore exporting from Kenya saves the global environment a lot in terms of global warming.
Group 3

Don't crops for export waste scarce resources?

Irrigation canal in Kenya. Do crops for export waste scarce resources?  (WRENmedia)
Irrigation canal in Kenya. Do crops for export waste scarce resources?

The accusation that we use up precious resources like water to irrigate export crops is mad. Half our water goes out the Tana river and we waste it; it ends up in the Indian Ocean. We have got plenty of water where we grow vegetables and we actually use our water pretty well. And secondly, we are using water to earn money and it is money that actually stops waste of energy. If people have got money they are more inclined not to use charcoal, not to chop down trees.
Group 1

Kenya is a country that is blessed, it is on the equator. We have a lot of water, and we lose a lot of the water to the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria.
Lusike Wasilwa, KARI

Let us note that Kenyan farmers have an experience of over 30 years growing beans and we have never had any incident which is of threat either to health or to the environment.
Timothy Mwangi, USAID-funded Kenya Horticultural Development Programme (KHDP)

Do small-scale farmers really benefit?

An African peasant farmer has a lot of dependents. The farmer may have about 5 children and they also have employees. If they stop producing these beans for export that means a whole line of families - perhaps around 30 people - are going to go hungry.
Josephine Wareta, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation

When the exporter buys from the farmer, the exporter does not take a huge amount of money. Basically the exporter gets his profits from the volumes, from how much he is buying from, say 1000 small scale farmers. When you go to the kilo, the farmer actually gets the bigger profit and the exporter makes sure that every farmer that he buys from has a constant price and that price has been calculated, gross margins have been done, everything has been done to make sure that this farmer has profited.
Caroline Nkirote, trainer in audit management, East African Growers

Horticulture is a main source of income and also employment of very many small-scale farmers. The produce that we export to Europe is of high value, so the farmers are able to generate more income which they can use for other developments and also for purchase of foodstuffs. So it is very important that we do high value horticulture rather than just subsistence farming.
Lydia Njuguna, Senior Agronomist, KHDP

Kenya has been exporting French beans to the UK for more three decades now. If it was not sustainable and the farmer was not making any money this would basically have dwindled to nothing. Also, the volumes that the farmers are producing and selling to the exporters are increasing. Therefore the farmer must be making some money to keep increasing the volumes and producing more beans.
Group 4

Farmers in Kenya, especially those ones who are growing green beans, mainly come from the rural poor. And actually when they grow these beans it gives them an income and this income goes to feed their family, feed the local people in their areas and actually it is helping a lot in alleviating poverty. We have seen farmers developing from very low class people, and you can even have farmers who have bought cars, educated their children and all this is because they are able to sell their produce.
Timothy Mwangi, KHDP

Underpinning economic growth

A farmer with his flowers grown for export (WRENmedia)
A farmer with his flowers grown for export

The horticultural export sub-sector is stimulating other economic activities in the domestic arena of Kenya. Stopping or minimising exports would have a devastating effect on other sectors that other Kenyans are dependent on.
Amos Oweru, Standards and Solutions

More than 94 per cent of vegetables produced in Kenya are consumed here locally. But the value of the 5 per cent which we export is almost equivalent to the 94 per cent. So the foreign earnings that we get from the export of these beans go very far to promote and to get the Kenyan economy growing.
Timothy Mwangi, KHDP

More than one million livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa are supported in part by export horticulture just to the UK. And that starts to counterbalance the extra energy that is used in flying this produce from Africa to the UK. There is also a lot of talk about how trade does not really affect rural areas and does not really help the poorest. However export horticulture is one of the very few examples where international trade actually produces and injects money into rural areas.
James McGregor, Research Economist, IIED

Kenya needs to be integrated into the global economy which is only possible if there is flow of trade from Kenya to other countries and then back to Kenya again. Now this kind of trade will allow for socio-economic development in the sense that the foreign exchange will be used to service other sectors like health, education, agriculture. So it is not a one track thing.
Group 2

If you don't encourage exports from countries like Kenya then farmers and people like me and many others won't have jobs. More than a million jobs are directly involved in the industry and indirectly it is more than 4 million.
Jacque Njonjo, Homegrown (horticultural export company)

UK shoppers should support UK farmers!

On the issue of protecting the British farmers we think this is outrageous. We are in a global economy and therefore you cannot say that the best thing to do is to protect those farmers. I think the best form of protection is to allow for competition in the sense that let the goods be there on the shelves, whether from Kenya, India, or Britain, and then the people can make their choice.
Group 3

I think the cost of production which is involved in producing this green produce in Britain would be much more compared to here in Kenya, which means that the cost of purchasing that produce will still be low when it is produced here in Kenya other than in UK. The money that a Kenyan farmer can earn from exports will enable him to specialise on what he can do better, while Britain will go for the other industries.
John Maina Munua, Ngethu horticultural farmers

The produce that Kenya sends to the UK supplements whatever is being produced by the UK farmers. These foods are not just a passing fashion. If they were, we believe that the trend would have changed by now and even if it did change we think that whatever alternatives they decided on would probably have had to be sourced from Africa anyway.
Group 4

I think that the most important thing is to find ways of garnering solidarity between developed country farmers and developing country farmers. They are all selling into the same markets, and at the end of the day wanting the same sort of things out of this. We do not want to be needlessly sending things by air freight but there are occasions where that is going to have to happen.
James McGregor, Research Economist, IIED

Don't keep moving the goalposts!

Inspecting passion fruit crop. Meeting tough standards is a vital consideration for exporters (WRENmedia)
Inspecting passion fruit crop. Meeting tough standards is a vital consideration for exporters

Since EurepGap standards were introduced in Kenya the farmers had a lot of problems that they had to overcome; they had a lot of changes in their farming systems to make sure that consumers got the highest standards of quality. No sooner have the farmers attained these standards and the UK consumers have changed the goalposts in the name of food miles. Where is the heart? What consciousness do they have when they destroy our whole nation?
Daniel Kimani, Technical Assistant, Vegpro, Kinangop

We have strong evidence that the role of export horticulture in terms of sustainable livelihoods in Kenya is extremely significant. People use this money to improve the livelihoods of their families, they improve their standard of living. These people have spent the last 3 years adapting their production methods to meet supermarket standards in Britain. People in Kenya have made an investment to export to the British supermarkets and the British consumer is now getting produce which is healthier, better grown, ecologically sound, with hardly any chemicals used on it. And now some people want to stop them because of concern about food miles. You cannot look at food miles in isolation without looking at the impact on rural livelihoods in Kenya.
Kevin Billing, BSMDP, Kenya

Date published: March 2007


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