As I entered the produce section of a supermarket, an attendant next to a display of apples attracted my attention by saying, “very fresh, by air from Japan.”

For me, there are few taste sensations as tempting as a crisp, freshly-picked apple from Aomori in the north of Japan. However, I resisted the temptation, not because of the lofty price, but, ironically enough, because of that “by air” comment.

Transporting apples by air seems to be just the latest way to provide consumers with the freshest possible produce.

Aomori Apple Japan
Apple from Aomori, Japan. Photo: Flickr/Richard Masoner.

Air-freighted produce has been available in Hong Kong supermarkets for at least a couple of decades so there’s nothing new about the attendant’s comment. After all, air-freighting fruit and vegetables such as blueberries and asparagus, which are highly perishable, seems to make sense.

Apples, however, don’t fall into this category. Japanese apples that normally arrive in Hong Kong by ship in refrigerated containers taking a week or so would surely taste the same as air-freighted ones, I surmised.

But this raises the whole issue of air versus sea transport for our produce here in Hong Kong, as well as the impact the two modes of transport have on the environment. And this ties into a statement released this week by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which served up an ominous warning about the grim future facing our children and descendants unless we curtail our use of fossil fuels.

It’s not as if we need another reminder about the possible stark future as the atmosphere begins to take its revenge on us. The intense heat and drought we experienced in May this year along with the recent super typhoon, Mangkhut, are likely precursors of what’s to come.

super typhoon mangkhut
Photo: Dan Garrett.

Although air-freighted apples may be one of the most flagrant examples of environmental abuse, purchasing any type of food that has been transported by air must be considered irresponsible.

The asparagus or blueberries that appear in our supermarkets at this time of year often come from Peru, flown a distance of 18,000 kilometres and taking about a day to arrive. If they had come this distance by ship, taking about a month, even under ideal conditions in refrigerated containers, they would arrive in bad shape.

Year-round, air-freighted, out-of-season blueberries and asparagus, along with several other examples I saw in the supermarket this week, such as zucchinis from Holland and green beans from Kenya, etc. have become the new normal.

However, our children are largely unaware of how really special this air-freighted and out-of-season produce is in the history of our species. The young generation has grown up expecting fresh berries at all times of the year. But as little as a couple of generations ago, eating out-of-season berries, and the like, was reserved for royalty.

Now, the list of our expectations in this new culinary normal is almost endless, and they all mostly involve, at their source, the excessive burning of carbon, which is released into our atmosphere leading to yet more warming.

Among all of the ways we consume carbon, eating air-freighted food ranks among the most damaging to the environment. According to one reliable estimate, air-freighted food is 50 times worse than eating food that arrives on container ships, such as bananas.

This is because of the economies of scale. Only a handful of containers can fit onto an aeroplane, which is then lugged 10,000 metres into the sky and sped to its destination. On the other hand, the largest ships can carry up to 18,000 containers, which, if filled with bananas, would amount to an unimaginable number.

fruits vegetables supermarket
File photo:

But at least blueberries in our winter from South America, or in the summer from North America, are grown in season, thus taking advantage of the natural light and heat from the sun. The same cannot be said about the strawberries from Korea and Japan that will soon appear in our supermarkets.

These are grown in hothouses using artificial light and heat which increases their carbon footprint tenfold. And what’s worse, they are air-freighted here and excessively wrapped in plastic.

Returning to those air-freighted apples and the comment made by the supermarket attendant, it is obvious that it was meant to be taken as a sign of freshness and quality. But by any estimation, can food that arrives in the supermarket with a carbon footprint 50 times greater than other forms of transport really be taken positively?

I am imagining a time in the distant future when climate change has really taken hold, with our shoreline regularly inundated, and superstorms annually thrashing our city. Researchers at that time will look back and try to account for our foolishness.

Near the top of their list of reckless behaviour in the early 21st century will surely be transporting food halfway across the world in enormous aircraft just to indulge our capricious taste buds.

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.