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Last Updated: Monday, 17 December 2007, 15:29 GMT
Shopping lists 'get more ethical'
By Hugh Pym
Business and economics correspondent, BBC News

Blackberries from Mexico, cherries from Chile, onions from Peru and broccoli from Kenya; just some of the fruits and vegetables on the supermarket shelves in the run up to Christmas.

Picking pineapple crop in Ghana
Fruit and vegetables come from worldwide destinations

Shoppers take it all for granted - fresh produce available all the year round regardless of whether it is in season in the UK.

But does it make any sense?

At a time when climate change is high on the political agenda, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production and transport are coming under increasing scrutiny.

'Marked shift'

But the debate is complex. Transporting food from Africa or Central and South America may be more environmentally friendly than cultivating it in heated greenhouses in northern Europe during the winter.

Food production for export is a source of income and employment for developing nations.

Mad About Food - BBC graphic
Mad About Food - this week BBC News is exploring the global food supply chain and its impact on the environment - on TV, radio and online.

A new survey made available to BBC News suggests that food shoppers are becoming more concerned about green issues and there has been quite a marked shift in the last year.

The poll, with responses from more than 5,000 shoppers, was carried about by the market research firm Nielsen.

The research is made available to supermarket management teams and regarded by them as an authoritative guide to our shopping habits.

The survey shows that 57% actively try to buy local products, up from 48% six months earlier. Some 46% said it was worth paying extra for ethically-produced goods or those seen as kind to the environment.

On organic produce, 83% of respondents had purchased at least one item over the last year. But only 21% thought it was worth paying more for organic goods, a reduction on a previous poll.

This might suggest that as organic goods enter the mainstream of food buying, shoppers are less willing to pay premium prices.


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The Nielsen survey reveals good intentions. But, according to some food experts, consumers need to change their ways radically.

Professor Tim Lang of City University and a member of the Government's Sustainable Development Commission argues: "We've got cathedrals of choice - we've never had so much choice. But it's coming at a huge environmental cost.

"Those costs have mainly been hidden from us and are only now becoming apparent. With climate change they are becoming extremely worrisome."

Government figures produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reveal the rapid growth in demand for imported food.

In 1988, 71% of all the food we consumed was made in the UK. By 2006, that figure had dropped to 58%.

Emissions increase

But food transport is about more than imports. Increased movement within the UK is an important issue in this environmental debate.

The total distance of all food journeys in British urban areas rose by 31% between 1992 and 2006. This was as much to do with shoppers using their cars as food delivery lorries.

Food transported by air has risen dramatically in recent times - 11% in 2006 alone. But it is worth remembering that air freighted food accounts for just 1% of total UK food imports.

Whatever mode of transport is used, the CO2 emissions associated with shifting food are on the increase.

World trade is a really important part of how developing nations will trade themselves out of some of their difficulties
Justin King, chief executive, Sainsbury's

So what do the supermarkets have to say about all this? Justin King, chief executive of Sainsbury's, is one retailer keen to boost sustainability.

He points to initiatives his company has taken to promote British foods in season, for example asparagus.

But when onions are in season here, why fly them in from Peru? If customers want them, he says, we will import them.

Mr King opposes any attempt to interfere with free trade. He believes in supporting developing world economies by buying their food.

"World trade is a really important part of how developing nations will trade themselves out of some of their difficulties," he says.

"I think it's right we should want to eat it all the year round and it's right that we, as supermarkets, should take responsibility for finding more sustainable ways of doing that."

So, plenty of food for thought for shoppers. They are expected to spend 1.7bn on food and drink in supermarkets over the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

Attention may not be focused too much on carbon footprints at this time of year, but there is scope for New Year food buying resolutions.

Do you care where your food comes from?
Not sure
9415 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion


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