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The Relative Importance of Transport in Determining an Appropriate Sustainability Strategy for Food Sourcing. A Case Study of Fresh Produce Supply Chains

Background, Aims and Scope. Over the last five decades, the nature of food retailing has undergone an enormous transformation. Macro level economic, structural and technological developments have led to a major increase in the level of world trade. These developments have helped retailers to meet modern consumer expectations, but benefits have not been achieved without some drawbacks. This paper seeks to explore the environmental impacts associated with fresh produce supply chains, in order to understand the relative significance of transport as compared to other supply chain activities.

Methods. Life Cycle Assessment was used to estimate the potential environmental impacts of three fresh produce items sourced from six countries and sold in Marks and Spencer stores: royal gala apples from Brazil, Chile, Italy and the UK; runner beans from Kenya (and extrapolated for Guatemala and the UK); and watercress from the UK and USA (and extrapolated for Portugal). Analysis was also conducted to evaluate the likely impacts of extending the storage period for UK apples thus negating the need to import, against the current strategy of importing fruit from the Southern hemisphere for six months of the year. In addition, the impacts of conventional as compared to organic cultivation were considered for watercress in both the UK and USA.

Results and Discussion. The results for all three products reveal similar dominating impacts. A clear distinction arises in terms of the activities which contribute most to environmental impact and the magnitude of this impact, depending on the country in which the product is cultivated; i.e. global, regional (European) or local (British) sources of supply.

Conclusion. Transport (or distance between production and consumption) is therefore an important factor in determining the environmental sustainability of food supply chains (though for long distance haulage, there is a significant distinction between airfreight and shipping). Electricity consumed for storage and packing operations is also significant, and the associated environmental impact is lower in countries where a large proportion of electricity is generated from renewable fuels. However, where this occurs in countries distant from the UK, transport impacts overshadow the environmental savings achieved from the more favourable electricity generation mix.

Recommendations and Perspectives. The results of this study suggest that when in season it is generally preferential, on environmental grounds, for UK consumers to buy British produce rather than produce imported from overseas. Cultivation overseas is necessary to ensure year-round availability and in these circumstances it is preferable that processing activities also occur overseas if environmental benefits can be derived from local factors (e.g. a favourable electricity generation mix). Overall, the findings should be evaluated in the context of managing wider sustainability interests (including social and economic issues), for which further research is required.

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01 November 2010


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