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That coffee, those roses... and the food miles dilemma

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Africa, Climate Change, Economic Development

Ethiopian folklore has it that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia.  A goatherd liked the taste and the feeling that followed when he plucked and ate some berries from what we now know as a coffee tree.

Coincidentally, I have a coffee tree in my front garden in Addis Ababa.  Not much to look at, particularly since my four-year-old son climbed it and plucked all the coffee beans (you might be able to spot them on the desk next to my arm in the photo).  Dried, roasted and ground, I might be able to make about one cup of coffee every few months.

Why am I writing about coffee?  Because it is one of Ethiopia's most important exports.  Some sources claim that as many as 12 million Ethiopians depend on coffee for a living.  Whatever the precise number, coffee is unquestionably an important livelihood for many Ethiopians.  Perhaps you're reading this while you sip a cup of coffee made with Ethiopian coffee beans - I'm certainly sipping away on a tasty Americano as I write.  And more than just a livelihood for many Ethiopians, coffee is a way of life, with the traditional 'coffee ceremony' central to Ethiopian family life and culture.

Hard at work... fuelled by coffee

And roses?  Another important export from Ethiopia.  Some people worry about the environmental impact of buying flowers flown in from Ethiopia or elsewhere in the developing world - the so-called 'food miles' dilemma.  Should we buy African flowers to support poor farmers or boycott them because of the environmental damage that growing and exporting them might cause?  See a thought-provoking paper on food miles here.

What's your view?

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  1. Comment by Christine Gorman posted on

    I think the moral choice as you've laid it out is a red herring. The long-term trend is for increasing fuel prices to derail the entire long-distance food transport system. Yes, fuel prices are down at the moment, along with the rest of the economy, but this too shall pass.

  2. Comment by Owen Barder posted on


    You pose the question in terms of a trade-off between the environmental damage and the benefit in terms of income for poor farmers.

    But for many products, there is no such trade-off because the products grown in Africa lead to less environmental damage overall than if they were produced in Europe. The environmental damage done by flying roses to Europe is generally reckoned to be less than the environmental damage done by growing roses in European hothouses. So buying roses from Africa not only helps the poor farmer, it is also less damaging to the environment than buying roses grown locally.

    "Food miles" should be a discredited concept: we should not be interested in the "food miles" that products have incurred but the total tonnes of CO2 emmissions required to put the product on our table. Very often, the African products will score as more environmentally friendly overall than their local competitor, even if they involve more food miles.

    But consumers can't be expected to weigh all this up in a complex calculation as they walk down the supermarket aisle. Fortunately, a simple solution is at hand. If emmissions of greenhouse gases were capped at an environmentally sustainable level (which may well be at zero net emmissions) and the permission to emit those greenhouse gases were tradable, then the price of each good or service would reflect the full cost to the planet of producing it. Consumers could then make their choices based on price alone.


  3. Comment by Alex Evans posted on

    Owen's last point is absolutly right: once we have a global carbon regime, the question of flying roses in from Kenya, or haricot beans in from Zambia, will just pale into insignificance next to the altogether more fundamental issues of embedded carbon in all that meat and dairy produce we're so fond of in our diets.

    All that said, I think Christine's also right to emphasise the long term question mark over the sustainability (in the literal rather than normative sense) of intercontinental supply chains for low value-added bulk products: see CIBC's analysis on this at

    (True, commodity prices have fallen a lot over the last few weeks - but without a really significant shift in the underlying supply and demand fundamentals, we'll be back staring at the problems of high oil and food prices as soon as we emerge from the recession. More on this at