The surprising impact of air-transported food

Flying food across the world feels like one of the big problems in our food system. But how many food miles are actually done by air, and how does that change the impact?

impact-of-air-transport

Frank Holleman | 07-27-2021

Main learning: A tiny percentage of products come by air
Goal: Avoid the few air-transported products
Impact: Low 🌍🌎⚪️⚪️⚪️

I am happy with our globalised world. During a normal week I might eat Italian pasta or Indian curry. I can’t imagine only eating potatoes every day.

But when you’re reducing meat and dairy, you often cook with products from far away. It’s an argument I’ve heard a lot: “Better to eat meat than flying coconut milk across the world.”

Is there any truth to that claim? Let’s find out.

What’s the footprint of air-transported products?

In the Netherlands, an example of air transported food is green beans (9% of them arrive by air). To analyse the impact we found a study that compared green beans flown in from Kenya to green beans grown in the UK (the circumstances of the UK and the Netherlands are similar).

Climate impact of air-transported and local green beans

The impact of air-transported beans is 7,5 times higher!

To put things in context, I also want to compare this to the lowest and highest-impact meat: chicken and beef.

Climate impact of air-transported green beans vs meat

Even the worst green beans are almost three times better per kilogram than the average beef option.

There are cases where vegetables flown by air are worse than meat. For example, the book ‘How bad are bananas’ features one of the worst air-transported foods: asparagus flown in from Peru to the UK (which is a lot farther than Kenya). In this scenario, the asparagus even has a slightly higher impact than a hamburger.

It seems like avoiding air-transported products should be just as important as eating less meat. But that’s not the full story.

How many products come by plane?

We think that products from around the world come by air, while in reality most food comes by boat.

We will look at the impact of shipping another time, but the emissions per product are dramatically lower compared to flying because so much fits on a container ship.

Share of global food miles by transport method

Only 0,16% of all food miles are done by air. Let’s say you’re in the supermarket and you pick one random product. The chances that it came by air are less than 1 in 600. And coconut milk is definitely not one of them.

If such a small amount of food comes by plane, it means that it can’t be an important topic to focus on when trying to eat more sustainably.

So, how much should you care?

Air-transported foods are just as bad as meat but the chances of buying them are really, really low. That makes it a complicated issue. Of course you want to avoid those products but it’s probably not worth spending a lot of effort on.

If anything, the high impact of air-transported foods confronts us with our vacations and the impact of flying.

Even if you want to do something, the problem is knowing which products came by plane. It would be great to have stickers to show what came by air.

All in all the statistics say that you shouldn’t care about air transport. And yet, it feels wrong…

As with so many other things this is completely counterintuitive. But sometimes it’s not just about the numbers. As a conscious consumer I want to feel good about my food. And avoiding air-transported food is a symbolic action. It’s my way of protesting against the absurdities of our food system.

So now that we know that it makes a small difference, I still want to give you some advice on how to avoid products that came by air.

How to avoid air-transported food products

One indicator can be price. Flying is expensive, so it only makes sense for foods that have a short shelf life. This means they are soft, fresh and refrigerated products.

The most common examples of air-transported food include:

  • fresh berries during European winter
  • asparagus from Peru
  • green beans, sugar snaps or haricot vers from Kenya

And if you crave berries and green beans during winter: buy them from the freezer. The extra emissions from the cooling are very low.

Conclusion

The surprise is that the total impact of air-transported food is low. Because even though the footprint per product is high, very few products come by air. So generally it’s better to make a curry with coconut milk than a steak.

In an ideal food system air transport wouldn’t happen but as conscious consumers we have bigger fish to fry.

Let’s put it this way: if you’re the kind of person who takes 10-hour bus rides to avoid a flight, you’re allowed to worry about this. Otherwise, focus your attention on other issues like eating less cheese.

Recipes

For this week, we selected two recipes with products from far away that come by boat. And since green beans are now in season, we also have two recipes to make those.

  • Orange Chilli Spaghetti (most oranges come from Brazil by boat)
  • Banana curry (bananas and coconut milk always come by boat)
  • Creamy gnocchi (green beans)
  • Chickpea Wat (green beans)