Food For Thought: How Groceries Are Flown Around The World

When you buy that bottle of Chilean red, that can of Italian tinned tomatoes, or that leg of New Zealand spring lamb, do you ever think about how it got from there to here? Groceries are a big user of global supply chains, and now, more than ever, airlines are a part of that chain.

Have you ever thought about how producers get their groceries to you? Photo: Cathy Finch Photography / Wellcamp Airport

Here’s a look at how airlines are helping get groceries from producers to you.

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Usually, airlines play a small role in transporting groceries

In usual times, airlines fly a small slice of overall groceries moving through global supply chains. One way of measuring it is to use food miles. A food mile is a metric that calculates the distance each transport method covers multiplied by the quantity of food transported.

According to a 2018 article written by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek in Science, air travel contributes just 0.16% of global food miles. In contrast, sea shipping generates 58.97% of global food miles, road 30.97%, and rail 9.9%.

With airlines making such a small contribution to the movement of groceries around the world, you might ask, why write about it? Two reasons. Firstly, 2020 has seen global supply chains upended. Secondly, airlines specialize in transporting a particular type of grocery.

In 2020, airlines are playing a bigger role than usual in transporting groceries. Photo: Wellcamp Airport

Supply chains disrupted in 2020

We all know what’s happened this year; flights got canceled, airlines got grounded. Given that scheduled passenger flights also carry freight, that in itself has disrupted supply chains. But getting less attention is the disruption to global sea shipping. They’ve suffered almost as much upset as airlines.

However, people still have to eat. Airlines were quick to pounce on one of the few revenue streams remaining open to them – freight-only flights. That’s seen airlines play a more significant role than usual in transporting groceries around the world.

In the United States, the FAA last week gave airlines permission to remove seats from their planes and operate freight-only flights. At the height of the travel downturn, with so many aircraft grounded, shippers were reportedly paying up to US$1.5 million to lease aircraft for freight only flights. However, rates have since dropped.

On the other side of the world, Oman Airlines has recently carried over 250,000 kilograms of groceries. One Oman Airlines Airbus A330 flight alone flew 49,593 kgs of fruit, vegetables, and other perishable groceries to Oman.

Oman Air has flown A330 loads of perishable groceries in from places like India. Photo: Maarten Visser via Flickr

Airlines lay on additional dedicated freight services

In Australia, a small regional airport is building a reputation as an export hub. Wellcamp, two hours drive west of Brisbane, is seeing regular freighters come down from Asia. That includes Queensland’s only dedicated Boeing 747-8F international freighter service. Even with this, local grocery exporters say actual freight capacity falls well short of demand.

Emirates has boosted its freight operations, including to far-flung destinations it doesn’t typically fly dedicated freighter planes too. The Dubai-based airline is now operating four freight-only services a week to New Zealand. In the hold of the Boeings are chilled meats, honey, dairy products, and seafood heading to the Middle East and Europe.

“We consider it our responsibility to ensure that we are able to facilitate the adequate supply of food and other essential commodities to markets that we serve,” says Nabil Sultan, Emirates divisional senior vice president for cargo.

Emirates is sending modified 777-300ER aircraft to New Zealand to fly out groceries. Photo: Emirates News Room

Air transportation shines flying time-sensitive, perishable foodstuffs

When it comes to groceries, air freight shines with time-sensitive and perishable items. One of the unforeseen consequences of so many people stuck at home is a renewed interest in cooking and food. That helps driving demand for unseasonal groceries of specific origins from specific countries.

When Nigella does a show featuring banana blossoms from Thailand and lamb from New Zealand, that helps underpin the demand for the products. That, in turn, helps sustain increased role airlines play in transporting groceries.

While tinned tomatoes can sit in a container on a dock for months, some groceries can’t wait. Back in Australia, Singapore Airlines laid on special freight flights into Adelaide to get time-sensitive groceries out to export markets.

Onboard the first A350-900 flight was 30 tonnes of seafood, lamb, poultry, eggs, cider, and wine.

“Around 90% of our air freight, usually goes out in the bellies of passenger aircraft. With very few international passenger flights leaving Australia at present, our exporters are facing major hurdles,” said Australia’s Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, in a statement at the time.

Singapore Airlines has operated special freight-only flights to fly groceries to key export markets. Photo: Singapore Airlines News Room

Travel downturn doesn’t slow down demand for fresh groceries

Despite the absence of regularly scheduled commercial flights, demand for fresh seafood and meat remains high in regions like Asia. At the other end of the supply chain, the producers cannot earn a living if they cannot export their products. Freight services operated by airlines are the vital link.

In Europe, perishable groceries are often flown in from the Middle East and African food bowl countries. Fresh beans come in from Kenya when out of season in Europe. During winter in the United Kingdom, lettuces are flown in from Spain.

Now, you might say, that’s appalling, we can grow them at home, in greenhouses, and reduce the food miles and carbon footprint. But it frequently turns out it is both economically cheaper and environmentally sounder to fly groceries in.

Lettuces in a British winter need to be grown in artificially heated greenhouses. Doing so generates a bigger carbon footprint than buying field grown lettuces flown in from Spain. Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones of Bangor University, an expert on African agriculture says:

“Working out carbon footprints is horribly complicated. It is not just where something is grown, and how far it has to travel, but also how it is grown, how it is stored, how it is prepared.”

Air freighted groceries can be a better ethical choice than many other options. Photo: Isabel Perello via Needpix

Of those beans from Kenya, Professor Edwards-Jones told The Guardian;

“They don’t use tractors, they use cow muck as fertilizer, and they have low-tech irrigation systems in Kenya. They also provide employment to many people in the developing world. So you have to weigh that against the air miles used to get them to the supermarket.”

Groceries transported by air can be the better ethical choice

Quite possibly, you’ve never considered the role air transportation plays in ethical eating. Or, if you have, you’ve assumed it’s up there with eating small children. But as Edwards-Jones says, transporting groceries by air can (in cases) reduce the carbon footprint, help drive developing nations forward, and consume fewer food miles.

Plus, fresh food tastes better. Why would you eat snap-frozen beans when you can eat fresh? Why would you eat tuna frozen six months ago when there’s an airfreighted tuna steak in the fishmongers’ window, not yet two days old?

The disruption to traditional global supply chains is putting a renewed focus on the role airlines play in it. It is also offering airlines new opportunities. The question is, as things slowly start to return to normal, can the airlines maintain the momentum they’ve recently built freighting groceries around the world?