Could Countries Trade Food With the Environment in Mind?

The world’s farming and transportation sectors are some of the biggest contributors to global warming and climate change since they emit around 14 percent of total global greenhouse gases each. Emissions are counted mainly from agricultural production and from the fossil fuels burned in road, air and sea freight, respectively. However, the two are also increasingly interlinked because of rapid growth of international trade in agricultural goods—such as foods, natural fibers and bio-fuels—over the last few decades. Agriculture’s impact on atmospheric pollution is rising because of the energy needed to move agricultural products between more and more countries around the world.

In theory, international trade is a good thing because it can reduce the price of goods for consumers and increase sales for producers, making everyone better off. However, this is a purely economic perspective that does not take important environmental issues into consideration. While goods will always continue to flow across national borders, if we are serious about reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and halting climate change, then we need to make sure that they do so in the most environmentally sound way possible.

Data on international agricultural commerce reveals a possible plan for policy action. It shows that current flows of agricultural products can be wasteful and inefficient in a very specific, measurable and addressable way. Fresh milk trade in Britain provides a good example.

The United Kingdom has an established and proud domestic dairy industry. It began to export significant amounts of fresh milk* in the late 1980s and, with some fluctuations, milk exports have been rising ever since. Sales of British milk to other countries peaked at more than 750,000 tonnes in 2006:

Britain’s Exports of Fresh Milk 1990-2010.

Data Source: FAOSTAT

At the same time, the amount of fresh milk that the U.K. imported from other countries also grew in fluctuating cycles, reaching a smaller maximum of around 200,000 tonnes in 1998, 2008 and 2010:

Britain’s Imports of Fresh Milk 1990 – 2010.

Data and Graph Source: FAOSTAT

In 1996 and 1997, the U.K had exported and imported almost equal amounts of fresh milk. In most other years, its exports were much larger than its imports. This means that, considering that organically produced milk is not counted in this data and notwithstanding the possible differences in the taste of imported and local milk, Britain has been simultaneously buying and selling virtually the same product.

U.K.’s fresh milk imports are therefore environmentally inefficient. If Britain used the milk produced by its own farmers to meet all its domestic demand, it would remove the need for milk imports and reduce the flow of milk exports. Every year, in the last two decades, policy makers could have prevented the unnecessary movement of between 75,000 and 402,000 tonnes of fresh milk to and from Britain. In all, between 1990 and 2010, greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of some 5.5 million tonnes of fresh milk in and out of the country, almost 60 percent of all U.K. fresh milk exports and imports during the twenty year time period, could have been avoided.

U.K. is not the only environmentally inefficient trader of milk. Germany, for example, is not only the world’s biggest exporter of the white stuff, at its peak sending more than 2.5 million tonnes of fresh milk to other nations, but, behind Italy, is also the world’s second biggest importer of it, importing almost 1.9 million tonnes annually in recent years. In all, with trade management that prioritizes environmental concerns, between 1990 and 2010, Germany could have avoided emissions associated with the movement of 37.5 million tonnes of fresh milk. That is enough to fill more than 14,700 Olympic size swimming pools:

Germany’s Fresh Milk Exports 1990-2010.

Data Source: FAOSTAT

Germany’s Fresh Milk Imports 1990-2010.

Data Source: FAOSTAT

The same can be seen for numerous products around the world. The Netherlands, for example, is a top five importer and exporter of potatoes. In 2002 and 2003 it imported almost an identical amount as it exported, around 1.7 mn tonnes of potatoes flowing each way across its borders. Similarly, the United States of America is a top five importer and exporter of lettuce and chicory, exporting between 300 and 400 thousand tonnes a year since 2000, whilst annually importing between 50 and 150 thousand tonnes. Many other examples exist, which you can find for yourself in the freely available global data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) FAOSTAT website. Although some differences may exist in the type of potato or lettuce being traded, it is safe to assume that at least a portion of this trade is environmentally inefficient.

While moving towards fully sustainable farming, more local consumption of food and worldwide use of clean fuel in transportation are ultimate environmental goals, tackling such big objectives all at once is unrealistic. We know from generations of experience that social, political and economic change is rarely revolutionary, but is most often evolutionary: it happens in slow, incremental steps, one adjustment at a time. Using data to figure out practical policy initiatives with focused and measurable environmental impacts, no matter how small, is likely to prove more useful in the long run than grand, all-encompassing ideas of systemic overhaul.

Shaping the cross-border trade of dairy in Britain and Germany, potatoes in Holland, and lettuce and chicory in America for the purposes of reducing transportation and pollution, for example, could greatly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the unnecessary movement of millions of tonnes of those goods. Similarly, restructuring trade in other agricultural commodities, with the goal of environmental efficiency rather than maximum profit, by removing obvious and unnecessary import/export duplication, could provide the necessary first steps for larger scale, longer term and better lasting change.

*NB: the figures used here include only data for fresh milk. Additional trade data for condensed and evaporated milk, dry milk, milk equivalent, and various other types of milk can be found on the FAOSTAT website.

Do you think that countries should trade with the environment in mind? Leave a reply below.

Ioulia Fenton researches food and agriculture issues at the Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD) was recently ranked among the world’s top one percent of think tanks on environmental issues by the Global Go To Think Tank Index.

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  1. I usually love your posts, Ioulia. You bring up important and interesting issues and analyze them well. But , I don’t think you gave proper consideration to the logistics and seasonality of trade in this one. For example, if the U.S. exports a product from California and imports the same product to Florida, that may be most efficient environmentally and economically. Seasonality could also be an important factor – I expect that the U.S. imports lettuce from Latin America in winter months and exports lettuce in the summer. The idea of eliminating trade where there is direct substitution of equivalent products makes a lot of sense, but may not have as much impact as you hope for.

    • Dear Mike,

      I absolutely agree with you that there will be important seasonality issues and qualitative differences involved. I think that a detailed study that looks into some of the biggest trade duplication (like Germany’s milk trade for example) is warranted and I am unaware of anything like that having been done. It would be interesting, timely and very useful from a policy perspective and may well turn out that the effects from elimination of duplicate trade would be small. On the other hand, it may highlight the opposite, thus uncovering a possible space for policy intervention. Alas, a short blog post does not allow for such detail, although I do point out that there are potential problems with taking the data as given. Perhaps we will look into the issue more at INESAD and come back to it again.

      Thank you for your thoughts.


  2. I don’t know if they are “exactly” the same product? milk can be presented in a variety of forms, and potatoes also have lots of varieties, also some farming techniques or industrialization will influence in the imports/exports (mashed potatoes, freeze ready to fry potatoes… etc, milkpowder…)

    • Hi there, I agree with you that there will be some qualitative differences, however, I never claimed that I was talking about ‘exactly’ the same product. As mentioned in the article, the data for milk, for example, is ONLY the data specifically for ‘fresh milk’. There are a half dozen other categories that account for various types of processed milk like dried, condensed and so on, which is not presented here. This data also does not include organic production. I do also mention that there will be differences in the types of lettuce and potatoes produced and that not all of that trade will be environmentally inefficient. The article aims at generating a normative discussion about where policy initiatives could start. Of course investigations into qualitative aspects of that trade are welcome and encouraged.

      • Thank you for your swift response. It is true that lots of different consequences sprang up from an open trade policy and the increasing “connectedness” of the world that we inhabit. The rules are not clear: is variety more important than efficiency? Will a gourmet approach where you can have quinoa for breakfast and smoked salmon for dinner mean we are really drying away valuable resources? Your article tackles a very important issue, thank you.


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