They are so sweet, perfectly grown and oh so healthy. But how far do they come, those kiwis and blueberries. And we still can’t teleport them, so they come here with a boat, plane and truck. This causes a huge amount of CO2 emissions. And there is really only one solution for that.

Almost a fifth of all CO2 emissions caused by our food system are due to transport. That’s seven times more than previously estimated, researchers at the University of Sydney write in a new study. Especially residents of rich countries are responsible for these CO2 emissions. After all, they can and want to pay for those berries from New Zealand, for example.

Study leader Dr. Mengyu Li explains: “We estimate that the global food supply, i.e. transport, production and land consumption, contributes 30 percent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Food transport, at 6 percent of the total, makes up a significant part of those emissions.” And even worse: “Emissions from food transport account for almost half of all CO2 emissions from traffic on the road.”

Food ecologist and co-researcher Professor David Raubenheimer adds that previous research has mainly focused on the high emissions of animal products compared to plants. “Our study shows that in addition to a more plant-based diet, local foods are also better, especially in rich countries.”

The researchers calculated that food transport leads to about 3 gigatons of CO2 emissions per year, the equivalent of 19 percent of total food-related emissions. Their analysis included 74 countries and 37 economic sectors, such as fruit and vegetables, livestock, international transport and industry.

Rich countries

In absolute terms, China, the United States, India and Russia are the largest contributors to food transport emissions. But relatively speaking, all rich countries contribute disproportionately. Countries such as the US, Germany, France and Japan make up 12.5 percent of the world’s population but generate almost half (46 percent) of all CO2 emissions from food transport.

Transport emissions vary by product. The transport of fruit and vegetables causes almost twice as many emissions as their production. Fruit and vegetables together account for more than a third of the emissions from food transport. “Since fruit and vegetables have to be transported at a low temperature, the emissions per kilometer are higher,” says Li.

The researchers calculated that it would save 0.38 gigatons of CO2 emissions if everyone only eats locally produced food. That’s the same amount of emissions as if you drove 6,000 times to the sun and back with a thousand kilograms of food, the scientists said.

They admit that not everyone can eat locally as many areas are not self-sufficient, but there are options. “For example, there could be more agriculture around cities to feed the urban population,” says co-author Professor Manfred Lenzen.

In addition, rich countries can reduce their emissions from food transport by, for example, focusing more on sustainable energy for trucks and ships. Emissions from food production and distribution can also be reduced by cooling food in more natural ways.

A better environment begins…

Although all this will help somewhat, it is actually the consumer’s turn to do this. After all, supply is always driven by demand. “The biggest environmental gain is in the change in consumer behavior towards a more sustainable diet,” says Raubenheimer. “One example is the habit of consumers in rich countries to want to eat fruit and vegetables all year round that are not in season. So that has to come from a long way.” Local food is the solution. “By choosing local alternatives that are in season, as we used to do, we are helping the planet become healthier for generations to come.”

So look in the supermarket where your fruit and vegetables come from. It’s always there. If those blueberries really come from New Zealand, think of the road they traveled and the kerosene that was required. How they then stopped in a truck, which was again stuck in a traffic jam before the driver could deliver that bowl of berries to your supermarket. And then grab a box of Dutch strawberries.

Dutch import fruit and vegetables

The Netherlands is importing more and more fruit and vegetables, in 2021 even for more than 9 billion euros. 77 percent of the import consists of fruit. The fruit and vegetables come from 120 countries. Last year 13 percent came from Spain, 12 percent from Peru, another 12 percent from South Africa, 8 percent from Belgium and 5 percent from Chile. The other half came from the other countries. Imports from Peru, Colombia and Brazil in particular have risen sharply. What we import the most: avocados, grapes, bananas, blueberries and oranges.