Posted by Mister JTA on November 15th, 2006 | 17 comments
I meant to do a post about this a week ago, but I somehow didn’t get round to it, so I’m using a bit of me flexitime to get it done now, before I go and forget.
There’s a lot of talk being talked with regard to the environment, at the moment, and the fact it’s screwed and we’re in for a seriously crap time during the next century or so. This is all very depressing, and nobody’s doing much about it beyond saying “this is bad, but we’re going to try and sustain our current habits anyway,” which is tiresome.
About a week back, as I say, Ruth and I had a conversation about the way food gets ferried around the world, and then around the country, for no real reason. It’s all pretty stupid – take Rowse honey, for example, which comes
in many tasty varieties, all of them fairly goopy and in jars.
Rowse have a factory in Wallingford, roughly next door to the Habitat warehouse. From there, insofar as I can tell, the honey is put into jars, given labels and loaded onto a truck. The truck takes it to a distribution centre, where is is collected by various representatives of the supermarkets and other shops which stock the honey with a view to selling it on to such honey-seeking shoppers as come through their doors. The supermarkets drive it to their distribution centres, then load it onto trucks and deliver it on a store-by-store basis, with the end result that the particular jar of honey we’ve been following ends up on a shelf in Waitrose, Wallingford, approximately a quarter of a mile away from where it started out some days earlier.
This cannot, in a world containing inventions such as the Wheelbarrow ™ be a sensible use of resources. Nor can shipping apples from South Africa – prime temperate apple-growing climate – to the prime temperate apple-growing climate of the UK, over 6,000 miles away, be considered remotely sensible. Shipping pineapples and things which don’t grow well over here perhaps makes sense. Shipping apples? What the Hell for? So we can eat apples all year round, and strawberries even in the winter? That’s certainly a convincing “pro” for excusing global warming; I wonder why nobody thought of using it before…
Now I can’t arrange all of this by myself, you understand – I need help from things like the Government and people with money like the supermarkets, so I doubt it’ll ever really happen. However, I reckon the following plan might just work, if only people would back it, and that won’t happen if I don’t tell anyone about it.
What we need is proper information about how far food has travelled to get to where it is when we buy it. That’s the first hurdle. Now I reckon anything up to a hundred miles or so is fair enough, maybe two hundred and then you can cover Scotland without too much trouble.
So you’re now in a supermarket in which you have chiller cabinets where the milk bottles clearly state that some of the milk has travelled – not necessarily come from, mark you, but travelled (remember our jar of honey, from before? – to get there. Some of it, having gone about 70 miles, costs a reasonably typical 90 pee. Some of it, which has managed to go 215 miles costs, say, £1.50.
Yonder we have apples. Those from the orchard down the road are priced at whatever 50 pee a pound is in metric. The ones from South Africa cost about six times that.
…Interesting… Can you see what we’re doing here?
The plan is we slap a nominal tax on foodstuffs that travel more than a distance of, say, 200 miles (although we need to get some boffins in to work out what that precise distance is). The trick, however, isn’t to say “10 pee per mile after the first 200 miles,” but to grade the tax, based on the item in question.
- So for things like milk, which can be got, even in these Dairyman-shafting days, fairly locally, any tax of the sort is going to be about a penny per mile.
- For things like apples, which again, grow in the UK, but not in areas like the Highlands of Scotland, you get a tax of, say, five pence a mile.
- Apples from South Africa, and other locally-available produce that still gets shipped all over the world, take a high tax of fifty to seventy pence per mile after the first 200 miles, which rapidly prices them very highly, making them rare luxury items.
- Things like bananas, which come from a long way off but don’t grow well in the UK still get a fairly high tax – say thirty pence per additional mile – but aren’t priced as highly, because there isn’t a valid local alternative.
- The tax we’re now raking in from this lot can then get funnelled into things like research into bio-fuels, and more efficient forms of renewable energy, and so on. The precise details of that would need to be done by someone who understands such things better than I do, but the main point is there is now readily available funding with which to investigate alternatives to fossil fuels, and high-impact air travel, and so on. Half the problem at the moment is that people working on such things are having a devil of a time getting the money together: no longer. Hooray!
What we now have is a system where it costs far more to buy South African apples than apples grown in Devon, for example. This discourages the consumers who blindly wander the supermarkets going “I need apples, here are apples, I will get them,” from buying those items which have a high-impact transit pattern above those who don’t – if it’s costing you an extra fiver to get apples from the other side of the world, you might just get Cox’s instead, no?
This is going to have three main effects:
- Demand for long-travelling food is going to drop, as prices rise. This is going to force down demand, making it less economical to have foods shipped a long way, and forcing suppliers to streamline distribution in order to keep things economical. (Time Rowse invested in a wheelbarrow, huh?)
- Demand for local food, in the manner of a see-saw, rises as distance food falls. Local produce sells better, which reduces the damage done by the large supermarket chains, and the mass-production style farming that’s been making life harder for everyone else – sure, the battery farm in Devon can knock out several million more eggs than the local Yorkshire farm, but by the time they’ve got up there, they cost twice as much… Farmers begin to get a better deal, and don’t get done over by the supermarkets any more – supermarket profit margins are dropping, but local grocers are doing better and better, meaning it’s time to cut out the middle man, forcing supermarkets to offer a better deal.
- Money rapidly becomes available for research into more eco-friendly approaches to everything – fossil fuel alternatives, better distribution networks, and so on. After a while, the money drops somewhat as people buy less of the high-tax, high-distance goods, but money is still coming in because of the token taxes on anything going more than the 200 miles – it’s not as much cash as before, but we’ve just built in a huge time-buying disincentive to long-distance haulage, so we’ve bought ourselves more time to develop the alternatives anyway (and this isn’t supposed to be happening as an alternative to proper funding, but in tandem with it).
So we end up with better distribution logistics, a return to the use of local produce and a boost to the rural economy, a reduction in the power of the big supermarkets to screw over the producers – and, incidentally, a reduction in their profit margins which might persuade them to cut costs by not triple-packing everything – and, because their money is now involved, greater awareness of things like how much impact a ship full of apples has on the environment.
Things which we can only get from abroad do cost more, but they’re only as cheap as they are because supermarkets keep prices artificially low anyway, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and things like South African Apples, for which we have frankly no need, cost far more than their intrinsic value, because, frankly, an apple from 6,000 miles away deserves to be treated like a luxury item that only a few people can afford, rather than the thing everyone munches during a coffee break. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Now I know the supply industry says things like “but we use huge cargo ships – it’s not like we fly the food half-way round the world!” but that, of itself, is not actually a justification: that’s saying “You should be grateful; we could put these babies on a ‘plane, and that’d really screw the icecaps!” and saying “I could be an even bigger bully than I am!” has never been that great as a justification for hitting someone.
I don’t think it’ll ever really happen, since it involves rich people offering to have less money, and there’s probably flaws in it that would need a lot of careful ironing out, but I do still think it’s a damn good idea, even if it’s not a blueprint, and I do believe good stuff could come of it, if only it got thought out properly, and implemented by people who didn’t just kowtow to the rich bastards…
…Ah well. When capitalism collapses, eh?