In an effort to stay competitive in a global market where increasing demands are made by consumers for “green” products, South African fruit and wine farmers have launched an initiative to determine the environmental impact of their industries.
The research could challenge the idea that exported products from the developing world have a higher environmental cost.
Consumers around the world are becoming more aware of how their choices affect climate change, and there is often a perception that food products that have travelled vast distances have a higher impact on the environment than locally produced foods because of the fuel spent in transporting them.
But transport emissions and “air miles” are only part of the picture, say researchers, and it is important to look at the overall impact the product has on the environment through its entire lifecycle. It is this impact that has become known as the carbon footprint.
The initiative is coordinated by the Deciduous Fruit Producers’ Trust (DFPT) and funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development through the South African based ComMark Trust. The project includes the development of an online assessment tool that can be accessed by all farmers to load the farming variables (including energy input and power costs) in order to calculate their individual, and eventually the industry’s, carbon footprint.
Launching the study in South Africa in July, UK Trade and Development Minister Gareth Thomas said: “Food miles created are only one part of the equation — this study will look at the whole cycle of production, which is the only fair way to go.
“Our research has shown nearly three-quarters of the UK public want to use their weekly shop to reduce poverty in the developing world. But they don’t want to spend over the odds, especially with the global economic situation, and they’re — quite rightly — concerned about climate change.
“This research will enable the industry here — one of the biggest wine exporters in the world — to understand the carbon ‘cost’ they pose to the environment. This is crucial to maintaining South Africa’s competitive position in global fruit and wine export markets in order to continue to employ local people.”
Norma Tregurtha, an agricultural economist at ComMark, said: “There is international pressure from consumers worldwide who want to know what the carbon footprint of produce brought in supermarkets is. This study is about satisfying requirements in a market that is becoming increasingly difficult.”
Last year Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, announced it would put carbon-footprint labels on its food items. There are also indications that Tesco, as well as Marks & Spencer, intend looking to the UK and other markets in the European Union for fresh produce.
In a media statement, ComMark point out that Tesco labels some imported products, including vegetables from African countries, with pictures of aeroplanes.
According to ComMark the final carbon footprint is not necessarily determined by the number of “air miles” the product has travelled. In fact, some locally produced products have a larger footprint. Studies done by Cranfield University in the UK showed that fresh flowers grown in Kenya and flown to the UK were five times more “environmentally friendly” than flowers grown in a hothouse under artificial light in The Netherlands.
With about 30% of South African wine and 20% of its fresh produce exported to the UK, this is the most important export market for South Africa.
“Supermarkets are powerful,” said Hugh Campbell, general manager of the DFPT. “They forecast trends, but we have to do the research for the right reasons. We have to measure where we are [in terms of our environmental impact] and determine a way forward. We have to act from a position of knowledge.”
The agricultural sector provides employment to about one million people in South Africa, which translates to about 7,5% of the country’s total workforce. Agriculture generates almost $4-billion in foreign income, with exports from the fruit and wine industry accounting for one-quarter of this income.
It is vital that the industry is strengthened — particularly in a time where it is faced with changes in rainfall patterns, which lead to unseasonal and unexpected droughts and floods. These climatic changes, coupled with rising fuel costs, lead to uncertainty in the industry.
It is also important that the industry is assured of growth as large numbers of new farmers are expected to enter the arena. Under the South African land-reform project, about 30% of commercial land has to be in the hands of black farmers by 2015. In the meantime, there are a number of small-scale farmers trying to make a living from the land.
“The research will benefit commercial as well as small scale farmers,” said Campbell. “The web-based calculator that producers will use … will enable us to determine how we measure up to international standards and benchmarks.”
So far South Africa has not experienced a fall in exports. “The carbon footprint of produce is being discussed globally, but … we have not seen a decrease in our export volumes,” said Stuart Symington, chief executive of the Fresh Fruit Exporters’ Forum.
“By doing this research and putting an assessment tool in place, we are getting ahead of the curve. To be environmentally friendly, we have to be proactive.” — IPS