'Food-miles' danger for NZ exports

Photo supplied.
Photo supplied.
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 flawed.

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 Netherlands hothouses.

Research, some of it conducted by Defra, has also found domestic transport, not international, accounted for the majority of environmental costs associated with food transport.

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 imported food.

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 debate.

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.

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