Do foods imported into the UK have a greater environmental impact than the same foods produced within the UK?
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This study of seven foods assessed whether there are modes or locations of production that require significantly fewer inputs, and hence cause less pollution, than others. For example, would increasing imports of field-grown tomatoes from the Mediterranean reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by reducing the need for production in heated greenhouses in the UK, taking account of the additional transport emissions? Is meat production in the UK less polluting than the import of red meat from the southern hemisphere?
We carried out a life-cycle inventory for each commodity, which quantified flows relating to life-cycle assessment (LCA) impact categories: primary energy use, acidification, eutrophication, abiotic resource use, pesticide use, land occupation and ozone depletion. The system boundary included all production inputs up to arrival at the retail distribution centre (RDC). The allocation of production burdens for meat products was on the basis of economic value. We evaluated indicator foods from which it is possible to draw parallels for foods whose production follows a similar chain: tomatoes (greenhouse crops), strawberries (field-grown soft fruit), apples (stored for year-round supply or imported during spring and summer), potatoes (early season imports or long-stored UK produce), poultry and beef (imported from countries such as Brazil) and lamb (imported to balance domestic spring–autumn supply).
Results and discussion
Total pre-farm gate global warming potential (GWP) of potatoes and beef were less for UK production than for production in the alternative country. Up to delivery to the RDC, total GWP were less for UK potatoes, beef and apples than for production elsewhere. Production of tomatoes and strawberries in Spain, poultry in Brazil and lamb in New Zealand produced less GWP than in the UK despite emissions that took place during transport. For foods produced with only small burdens of GWP, such as apples and strawberries, the burden from transport may be a large proportion of the total. For foods with inherently large GWP per tonne, such as meat products, burdens arising from transport may only be a small proportion of the total.
When considering the GWP of food production, imports from countries where productivity is greater and/or where refrigerated storage requirement is less will lead to less total GWP than axiomatic preference for local produce. However, prioritising GWP may lead to increases in other environmental burdens, in particular leading to both greater demands on and decreasing quality of water resources.
KeywordsEutrophication Food Global warming potential Greenhouse gases Imports Life cycle assessment Water use
Many people provided data and contributed to developing the methodology. In particular, we thank Paul Watkiss and Martin Palmer, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Meat Services (AHDBMS); P. Cook and RL Consulting, poultry production in Brazil; and Ø. Buhaug, Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (Marintek). Funding from Defra is also gratefully acknowledged.
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