Giant US department store chain Wal-Mart has some interesting initatives to promote sustainability and public health that the likes of Coles, Woolworths and Bunnings should be taking note of.
My interest in Wal-Mart was piqued by a large number of hits The Melbourne Urbanist received last month from the US on a piece I wrote about the value of ‘food miles’. The hits were generated by an article published in The Huffington Post and the Harvard Business Review.
Written by Andrew Winston, the article looked at Wal-Mart’s efforts to green its supply chain and linked to the analysis of whether or not ‘local food’ is more sustainable that I posted here back in July.
Andrew Winston says there are three initiatives in particular that demonstrate Wal-Mart’s strategic focus on sustainability.
First, it’s doubling the quantity of locally sourced food on its shelves; second, it’s reducing the amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt in its house brand products; and third, its donating $2 million to 16 food banks to help them lower their energy costs (food banks are non profits that distribute surplus food to the hungry).
I doubt there’s any sustainability dividend from buying locally (the point of my earlier piece on ‘food miles’), but apparently Wal-Mart believes it will lower supply costs. It should also help the company create a friendlier image with local communities.
The second initiative is the key one. It could potentially provide a better public health outcome for customers as well as reduce the environmental impact associated with complex inputs like saturated fat and sugar. It should improve Wal-Mart’s standing on health and environmental issues and thereby give it a continuing commercial incentive to keep up the good work. Read the rest of this entry »
As I’ve argued before (here) there are a number of reasons why buying food locally is probably the least sustainable basis on which to base your food buying preferences.
First, transport is only a small component of the total carbon emissions from agriculture.
Second, most food can’t be grown locally without resorting to potentially environmentally damaging practices like excessive application of fertiliser, irrigation or artificial heating of greenhouses.
Third, even where the local area is suitable for growing certain foods, it might not be the most environmentally efficient location for a particular food.
Fourth, producers in more distant locations might have superior farming practices to local growers. Fifth, the environmental and economic cost of moving people is higher than the cost of transporting their food.
Now Stephen Budiansky has assembled an array of interesting factoids in this NY Times oped, Math lessons for locavores, to show the folly of being a locavore. He’s a stylish writer so you might want to read the full article; otherwise here are a few key quotes:
- “Whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the oldest processes in urban development is the conversion of peripheral land from farming to residential use. The standard argument is highest and best use: housing gives a bigger pay-off than farming. It’s the same basic logic underlying why natural bushland is cleared for agricultural use.
On Monday I looked at the idea of “food kilometres” but today I want to look at whether productive agricultural land should be converted to urban use.
Straight up, the evidence suggests urban development doesn’t pose much threat at all. The productivity of agriculture in Australia has increased 2.8% p.a. over the last 20 years, double the rate at which the wider market economy has grown.
Moreover, the Australian Natural Resources Atlas shows that the area of land used nationally for urban development amounts to just 0.5% of the area of land used for agriculture. Another estimate by the Australian Collaborative Land Use Mapping Program puts the ratio of urban land to agricultural land at 2.8%.
A more detailed study by Peter Houston published in 2005 found that agricultural land on Melbourne’s urban periphery comprised a little less than 6% of the total land base used for agriculture in Victoria. Melbourne seems to be an exception – the average figure for peri-urban areas across all mainland States is a mere 1%. Read the rest of this entry »