How green are your beans?

Supporting Kenyan vegetable growers is more important than obsessing about buying British
November 18, 2009
Green beans: more valuable to Kenya's economy than banking or tourism

Driving from Nairobi, a visitor to Kenya’s agricultural heartland is struck by a lush green landscape. Here, at the foot of the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya in an area known as Mwea, rows of irrigated fields sprout neat rows of green beans. These vegetables will occupy only a small space on the shelves of European supermarkets—but, alongside fruit and flower sales, they are vital to Africa’s economic prospects. Yet in early November, a report by lobby group Consumer Focus on Britain’s supermarkets chastised many of them for not selling enough home-grown products.

The truth is that buying from African smallholders is actually kinder to the planet than industrial farming in Europe—as well as vastly more useful to the people most at risk from climate change. Today, two-thirds of Africa’s population depends on agriculture for their livelihood, which is in a sorry state. For many reasons, average farm output per capita is lower than in the 1960s, and Africa has no realistic prospect of achieving even the basic living standards outlined in the UN’s millennium development goals. Which is why the vegetables grown in Mwea are so important. In Kenya, exports of non-traditional crops to Europe will earn more than $1bn in 2009, making horticulture a more valuable local industry than banking, tourism or telecommunications. The Horn of Africa is wracked by its worst drought in a decade, and Kenya is already suffering the probable effects of climate change. But the fertile soil, temperate climate and man-made irrigation canals of Mwea offer a slender comparative advantage.

Speaking in London in October, the Archbishop of Canterbury urged us to stop buying African vegetables and to start growing our own. Yet Rowan Williams has revived a flawed argument—recently floated, and then abandoned by the Soil Association—that the carbon footprint of air-freighted food is not sustainable. The scientific research tells a different story: in Kenya, more than 60 per cent of crops are grown by smallholders who farm by hand in the old-fashioned, labour-intensive way. As anyone who tends an allotment knows, this produces higher quality vegetables and lower carbon emissions than European industrial farms. Indeed, even the government realises how much current British agriculture pollutes: in early November it told farmers to adopt greener practices or face deductions in their subsidies.

Only around 14 per cent of the fruit and vegetables we consume today come from Africa, and this year just one-tenth of Kenya’s annual horticulture harvest will be exported—most of it in the holds of passenger aircraft carrying tourists home from Africa’s beaches and game parks. And the combined tally of emissions from all imported air freight accounts for just 5 per cent of Britain’s total aviation carbon emissions, whereas passenger travel produces 90 per cent. To veto imported vegetables, then, would penalise Africa’s smallholders for the recklessness of European holidaymakers.

Many rural African economies are adaptable, too. On a visit to Mwea earlier this year, I noticed a man digging out partially grown green beans from a field, clearly well before they were ready for harvest. This 64 year-old farmer had just clinched a better deal, to replant his field with sweet potatoes for a large commercial exporter. By diversifying away from traditional staple crops such as maize, about 1.5m Kenyan smallholders have earned a six-fold increase in incomes. When prices change, they act quickly.

Both Consumer Focus and Rowan Williams have (no doubt inadvertently) given fresh ammunition to the vested interests of European industries, which borrow environmental language to undermine more competitive African rivals. And British supermarkets, eager to advertise green credentials, are sadly susceptible to such ploys too. In 2007, both Tesco and Marks & Spencer introduced a trial system of carbon labelling for air-freighted products. Their sticky labels depicting tiny black aeroplanes told us very little, whereas last year an American study of the entire lifecycle of a food, from field to plate, found that production methods account for 83 per cent of the total carbon footprint, compared with just 11 per cent from transportation.

Yet the archbishop is right that tending an allotment is a lesson in learning to love the planet. It would be a good thing if every British household grew its own vegetables, and better still if we rationed our intake of resource-intensive red meat. Until then, it makes more ethical and environmental sense to buy African vegetables. And if you care about the planet, cook them in the microwave, not the oven.