Technology Smashes the Tyranny of Distance

Commentary, Environment, Information Technology, Owen McShane, Transportation

This story has been doing the rounds in the Op-Eds of North American dailies all year. Eager to be seen doing their bit to cut carbon emissions for mother earth, old style European environmentalists who lambaste far-flung food imports were humiliated by sober science.

British polemicist George Monbiot pronounced it “unthinkable” to import food from New Zealand lest its transport destroy the planet. In a bizarre scandal, a British supermarket was caught passing off exotic New Zealand fare that consumers usually clamour for as homegrown. The sober science came when New Zealand’s Lincoln University did a full analysis of food importation from down under. Counterintuitively, they found it is greener for Europeans to import from the other side of the world, greener by a large margin, in fact. Monbiot and company got two things wrong with food miles.

They underestimated the ecological and environmental efficiency of New Zealand farming. With its ideal climate and soil and a rampant free market agricultural sector, which has averaged over four per cent productivity growth for the past two decades, New Zealand farmers make their European counterparts look mediaeval.

Monbiot also dramatically overestimated the ecological impact of transporting the food. As we will see, transporting food is less of an “unthinkable” eco-crime than it is a great achievement in human history and a rich vein of global culture.

Sarah Murray’s delightful work Moveable Feasts: The Incredible Journeys of the Things We Eat reminds us through a series of essays on foods such as olive oil, salmon, spices, curry lunches, cheese and coffee that food has always travelled long distances and that the first civilizations turned food from a fuel into a source of pleasure.

The vessels used to move these foods have equally rich and fascinating stories. The Romans used amphora to bring olive oil from Spain and North Africa to Italy. The smashed remnants of these clay jars made small mountains of non-recycled that are now a treasure trove for archaeologists. The well-travelled shards in one dump alone may have moved 1.6-billion U.S. gallons from grove to gourmet. On the other hand, oak barrels, a brilliant solution to the problem of moving grains and liquids by sea, proved to be worth recycling, because of their high initial cost and the wonderful flavours they imparted to other produce when reused. (When recycling makes sense, people do it.)

Refrigerated shipping arrived in the 1880s and made modern day New Zealand possible through its pastoral economy. This invention also promoted the early wave of globalization that allowed the farmers of Australia, Canada, Chile and Argentina to grow wealthy on pastures’ back.

Our belief that the present wave of globalization is due to the electronic revolution that moves money so freely and rapidly around the world reflects our fascination with high technology and our ignoring of the mundane.

In 1956, Malcolm McLean’s Ideal-X carried fifty-eight of his newly invented shipping containers out of Port Newark, New Jersey, and totally transformed world trade. The shipping container – a simple standardized steel box – is the true driver of modern globalization. These boxes, which can be filled at a factory in China and unloaded in a supermarket in New York, link labour, materials and markets to create huge efficiencies in the total supply chain.

His invention may have put thousands of wharfies out of work, but it put millions to work in farms, factories and offices around the world.

McLean’s containers were decidedly low tech, but the next generation of refrigerated cargo ships used advanced engineering and microprocessing to control temperature and atmosphere as well as global positioning systems to extend the benefits of the container trade to the shipping of perishable foods. The result is that New Zealanders now ship their kiwi fruit to England. The ill-informed food miles campaigners assumed they came by plane and had to remove their feet to eat their words.

New Zealand turned to the scientists at Lincoln to mount its counterclaims but would not have needed their input if peoples’ general knowledge of the rural sector matched the income it generates.

Modern food transport’s unsung hero is the American Barbara Pratt. She began her productive life working for McLean’s Sea-Land, where she travelled the world in a laboratory inside a shipping container to see what the contents were subjected to as they moved around the world. She was no theoretician – she actually lived in the environment that would soon keep all manner of unusual foodstuffs in good shape on their journeys. She now works for Maersk, the giant Danish shipping company that eventually bought Sea-Land.

The world’s biggest container ship is the Emma Maersk. She carries an astonishing 11,000 containers, and each container can contain, for example, about 50,000 bananas or 500 million in a single load. She has a crew of thirteen sailors, which is not enough to sail a medium-sized racing yacht.

The fuel efficiency of such ships is quite remarkable. Murray reports, “The Emma Maersk can move almost 50 miles using the same amount of energy per tonne of cargo that a jumbo jet uses travelling less than a third of a mile.” In case you think a jumbo is profligate, a 747 flying across the Atlantic uses less fuel per passenger-mile than a TGV intercity train in France.

Murray tells these histories and enriches them with fascinating tales and equally fascinating facts. Along the way, she mounts the case for the farmers of the world but without hectoring or finger pointing. She simply lets the facts, the reality and the histories speak for themselves.

She also makes the case for all those farmers in truly poor countries who are emerging from poverty, as modern transport systems allow them to link their produce to the markets of the wealthy who increasingly want genuine ethnic food. In the nicest possible way, she reminds the so-called ethical consumers of the devastating impact their half-baked plans to save the planet will have on those whose first concern is to feed their children breakfast. Can a buy local campaign really justify the reversion to poverty for millions of people?

Instead of wallowing in our own ill-informed guilt, we should be rushing to their defence and, not coincidentally, our own.

I hate to think what our children are taught at school. A first countermeasure would be for every reader of this column to buy two copies of Moveable Feasts and donate one copy to the local school and another copy to his or her MP.

However, do not waste one on George Monbiot. His mind is made up and the facts will not change it.