Food miles in wine; the incredible bulk

Food miles is one factor used when assessing the environmental impact of food, including the impact on global warming. The term refers to the distance food is transported from the time it’s produced until it reaches the consumer. Bulk wine exports to the EU have grown significantly over the last decade in a bid to reduce food miles and comply with carbon regulation. But the price is a loss to jobs associated with bottling in producing countries like South Africa.

Researchers have found that in fact the focus on food miles is probably misplaced since less energy is spent transporting food than in producing it – only around 2% of the environmental impact of food comes from transporting it from farm to shop, although for wine it could be as much as 34%, depending on the distance and method of travel.

Food Miles

The UK consumes around one billion bottles of wine every year and is the world’s largest importer of wines, with a retail value of around £7.6 billion. Almost half of this wine is imported from the New World. The carbon footprint of alcohol consumed in the UK is 1.5% of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions, of which one quarter is attributable to wine.

Carbon Footprint

But it’s not so much the distance travelled by wine as the transportation method which is important; shipping a case of wine by container vessel is hugely preferable to transporting it by truck. A bottle of wine from Chile, shipped by sea container from Valparaiso to Felixstowe and then by road to Bristol for example uses about 318g of CO2. Compare that to the average car which emits 170g of CO2 for every kilometre driven – so 2kms by car roughly equals a bottle of wine from Chile to Bristol. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint it is much more effective to reduce your car usage than to avoid buying wine from the New World.

International Logistics

There is an initiative led by WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) to encourage bulk shipments of wine in a bid to reduce the environmental impact of transport. Bulk wine is exported in a 20 foot ocean shipping container which holds around 25,000 litres of bulk wine in a ‘flexitank’ bag. WRAP estimates that if wine was exported in bulk from Australia there would be a 40% carbon emission saving compared to bottling at source and exporting the finished product. This might be suitable for large volume branded wines, but would be problematic for smaller volume quality wines.

Flexitank

A report by Rabobank focuses on the New World wine trade since 2001 and has noticed a dramatic change in the composition of wine shipments (bottled versus bulk). In 2001 bulk wine accounted for about 22% of New World wine exports and the rest was shipped in the bottle. By 2010 this had changed so that the bulk share now accounted for over 40% while the bottle share fell to less than 60%. So that’s nearly double the bulk wine share in less than a decade, an amazing shift that is invisible to consumers.

What drives this shift from bottle to bulk in the New World wine trade? In a nut shell; money and the environment. Rabobank estimates that bulk shipping yields an average cost savings of $2.25 per standard 9-liter case and they estimate total annual savings of $142,300,000 in 2010 compared with the 2001 level of bulk shipments.

Bottled wine is clearly heavier and bulkier than bulk wine (glass accounts for more than 40% of a standard bottle’s total filled weight) so requires less energy to transport. In theory, shipping wine in bulk and bottling closer to the final consumer should lower the wine’s carbon footprint.

Tesco, the world’s largest wine retailer,  is reported to be particularly aggressive on this front with bulk wine imports being bottled in screw cap-topped lightweight glass for its high volume private label brands.

But whilst transporting wine in bulk does cut carbon emissions modestly (when comparing with shipping bottled wine) it also adversely affects the producer who doesn’t have the opportunity to value add on their product by bottling it. And it has a negative impact on jobs associated with bottling (glass manufacture for example) in the producing country. Are the humble savings in carbon emissions worth these unintended but serious consequences? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to focus on using our cars less?

Undriving Challenge

Sources and Further Reading:

Wikipedia – Food Miles

Natural Matters – Carbon footprints, Food Miles, Carbon Neutral Wine

The Wine Economist – Sustainability

Trans Ocean Bulk – Case Study: Bottling wine in a changing climate

The Drinks Business – UK Calms South African Bulk Wine Tensions

South Africa Info -SA wine makers to cut carbon footprint

The Guardian – Red, white and green

Tesco – Greener packaging at Tesco

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