Food purchasing decisions based on the flawed "food
miles" concept could wipe 0.24% off New Zealand gross domestic
product, a new study has revealed.
The report said New Zealand would be one of the hardest hit
exporters to Europe should the food miles debate gain
traction, and so, too, would some of the poorest African
countries, which also depend on agricultural exports.
The report by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research
and Dr Niven Winchester of the University of Otago reiterated
earlier findings that basing the environmental impact of food
solely on the distance it has travelled to market, was
The food miles argument assumed that the greater the distance
food travels to market, the greater the environmental impact.
But it was an argument with some traction, with a UK survey
finding 56% of consumers there were aware of the phrase.
The New Zealand report argued that assessing greenhouse gas
emissions from a product should be for the life cycle of the
product - sowing, growing, harvesting, packaging, storage,
transportation and consumption.
It also argued that food miles only took into account the
miles travelled and not the efficiency of the transport mode
- the energy used and emissions generated when measured on
per tonne-kilometre basis.
The United Kingdom Government's Department of Environmental,
Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has calculated the emissions
from long-haul air freight were more than 100 times greater
than for sea freight.
Defra has also calculated that it can be more sustainable
from an energy point of view to import tomatoes from Spain
than produce them in UK hot-houses.
Lincoln University researcher Caroline Saunders has
calculated that lamb, dairy products, apples and onions
sourced from New Zealand used less energy when landed in UK
supermarkets than their local equivalents.
Another study has found the carbon impact of Kenyan roses
exported to the UK were six times lower than those grown in
Research, some of it conducted by Defra, has also found
domestic transport, not international, accounted for the
majority of environmental costs associated with food
The New Zealand report said the real drivers behind food
miles was protectionism, initiated by farming interests;
commercial benefits from portraying competing imported
products as environmentally evil; food security, with a
reluctance by some not to be reliant on food from other
countries; and environmentalists pushing for consumers to
lessen their carbon footprint by reducing the volume of
The stakes were high for New Zealand, with food and beverage
exports representing 55% of our exports and worth $2.2
billion to the UK, France and Germany alone.
New Zealand was the most distant developed country from the
UK, which made it "the poster child" of the food miles
The report concluded that developing countries would also be
hurt from the food miles debate.
In addition to imposing economic costs, a food miles campaign
was unlikely to deliver environmental benefits; but the
report found that New Zealand efforts to counter those
misconceptions had been worthwhile.
While other pressing economic issues might have taken the
focus off consumer preference for sustainable products, the
issue of consumer preference for sustainable products would
re-emerge and would be significant.
"This suggests that New Zealand firms will need to continue
to invest in measuring, monitoring, reducing and then
communicating the environmental footprint of their products,
as export income is at stake."
The Government should support firms on the food miles issue,
because there was lack of consumer understanding of the true
environmental impacts of their purchasing decisions and it
was costly gathering information on overseas consumer trends,
policy negotiations and campaigns to correct misinformation.