A worker plucking tomatoes at a farm in Al Ain. Image Credit: Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News

Dubai: Dr Cedwyn Fernandes, associate professor of Economics at Middlesex University, explained how some fruits appear cheaper in terms of prices when imported but in reality are far more expensive when one counts the true cost of food miles.

The concept of food miles

Food miles are the distance travelled by produce from the farm to plate and they have gained prominence in measuring the impact on the environment. The longer the distance travelled, the wider the carbon footprint. However, this, too, is a very simplistic argument as it is also true that produce which travels longer distances may not necessarily be bad for the environment.

For example, carbon emissions via sea freight are about a hundred times less than air freight and even less than road transport. So, even though the miles may be more, the impact on the environment is less. Similarly, locally produced food or food imported from neighbouring countries may not necessarily be good for the environment depending on the suitability of the produce to the climate and soil which could call for increased resources to grow it or have inefficient manufacturing processes and supply chains.

Dr Fernandes illustrates this with an example: ”Say the New Zealand Gala Apple costs Dh12.85 per kilo in a supermarket in Auckland and retails at a UAE supermarket at Dh8 per kg. These apples are shipped 15,133km and then stored in a refrigerated environment and yet offered at a cheaper rate than in their home country. How does this work? Because of two reasons. One, the UAE market has keener competition from produce of other places and has to keep the price low to match that. In New Zealand, on the other hand, there is no competition locally and so the prices are higher. Besides that, too much local supply can wreck market prices and so retailers hold on to a fixed price. However, what is important here is that although the same apples cost Dh8 here, the long-term environmental damage in shipping these apples is not really factored in.

“One of the reasons why the UAE imports most of its food,” says Dr Fernandes, “is because it does not have a comparative advantage in agriculture.” The arid desert climate presents many challenges to sustainable farming to meet local food demands. Despite this, however, the UAE is moving towards an energetic farming future.

According to Dr Fernandes, some of the reasons why some countries are able to sell much cheaper produce despite being further afield from UAE are that these countries could have a comparative advantage due to conditions such as land, labour capital, technology, the subsidies given by the exporting country, and governments that enable producers to price items below cost. A third and more important reason which has gained prominence in the last decade is the real cost of production has not been factored in. To make the right choice from a society’s point of view one needs to ensure that all the costs of production are accounted for.

The potential to reduce food mile externalities, shift consumer decisions towards seasonal, locally produced food, and influencing the transport choices can have a considerable impact on environmental outcomes, he says.

“The UAE should set a target to produce 30 per cent of its food consumption locally and another 50 per cent imported nearer afield from the GCC, Africa and the Indian sub-continent,” he says.




Food for thought

Gundeep Singh, president and founder of the Change Initiative, which has been promoting eco-friendly products to cut out all carbon miles, believes that in the long run this is the choice we have to make for more sustainable living in the region.

“As per WTO, UAE is the 15th largest importer of food in the world constituting of 1.1 per cent of all food imports in the world. There is also a 2.4kg of waste per capita in the UAE that goes into the landfill — approximately 800g of this is organic or food waste, most of it from hotels and malls. Almost 30 per cent of all food purchased in malls and hotels is thrown away, leading to large amounts being put into landfills.

“We, as a community, have to ensure that we opt for locally produced food. The issue of consumption and waste will only grow as landfills in the UAE face growth in population in the coming years. Today, as we stand, we need to take urgent measures in this direction by adopting food habits that rely on local produce and reduce net waste from our homes, offices, hotels and restaurants to a minimum going forward.

“The government is also looking at taking pragmatic steps with recent announcements from the Dubai government to impose a much higher levy on waste than the present Dh10 per landfill dump.”