April 27, 2008

Time to tax international food shipping costs?

Why are those Chilean grapes so cheap in our supermarkets? Why is Italy now ahead of New Zealand as the world’s largest kiwi-growing country? Why are Argentine lemons going to Spain’s Citrus Coast while local ones rot in groves?

Because a Bretton Woods-era agreement keeps international fuel for food shipping from being taxed. And, today, we pay the environmental costs for that, in the above and even greater food absurdities, like Britain both importing and exporting 15,000 tons of waffles a year or 20 tons of bottled water.
Under a little-known international treaty called the Convention on International Civil Aviation, signed in Chicago in 1944 to help the fledgling airline industry, fuel for international travel and transport of goods, including food, is exempt from taxes, unlike trucks, cars and buses. There is also no tax on fuel used by ocean freighters.

But the European Commission, once again light-years ahead of the U.S. in 21st-century insight, is going to change that. As the story notes, all freight-carrying flights into and out of the E.C. are supposed to be included in its emissions-trading program by 2012, meaning shippers will have to purchase permits for the pollution they generate.

The commission is negotiating with the International Maritime Organization, over various alternatives to reduce greenhouse gases on sea freight as well. If they don’t craft a solution by the end of the year, sea freight will also be included in the emissions-trading program.

Meanwhile, European grocers are also ahead of American ones.
Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, known as a vocal promoter of green initiatives, is introducing a labeling system that will let consumers assess a product’s carbon footprint.

Some foods that travel long distances may actually have an environmental advantage over local products, like flowers grown in the tropics instead of in energy-hungry European greenhouses.

“This may be as radical for environmental consuming as putting a calorie count on the side of packages to help people who want to lose weight,” a spokesman for Tesco, Trevor Datson, said. …

The problem is measuring the emissions. The fact that food travels farther does not necessarily mean more energy is used. Some studies have shown that shipping fresh apples, onions and lamb from New Zealand might produce lower emissions than producing the goods in Europe, where — for example — storing apples for months would require refrigeration.

But those studies were done in New Zealand, and the food travel debate is inevitably intertwined with economic interests.

The story also notes that Europe has a situation a bit analogous to the U.S. one with Mexico. But in Europe, the labor isn’t being imported. Instead, the labor costs of African countries is being used to get more cheap food into European groceries. Especially given historic contacts all around the Mediterranean Rim, this is only going to increase, even with an emissions tax.

Here in the U.S. it would be another way for cities, counties or regions to get beyond BushCo’s inaction on environmental issues. It would be tough for a central city to do it without suburbs also being involved, or would it?

It might give suburbs incentive to preserve more farmland if produce in their own supermarket didn’t have a carbon tax.

For instance, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is moving beyond his predecessor, Laura Miller, in trying to make Dallas a green city. A carbon tax on produce would help this, with sliding scales for local/regional, outstate, national and international food.

It’s too late to save much farmland on the north side, but here in the Best Southwest, there’s still time.

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