Food miles are catching up with our economy

A visible shudder ran through the government last week. Not the sign of a passing cold but a sign of a chronic illness we have not faced up to before.  

It came in the buzz expression “food miles”. New Zealand as a food producer and agricultural exporter to the rich countries of the “global north” on the other side of the world has been the focus of attention because the energy used in shipping or flying our food to these markets means our food is not as “environmentally friendly” as food produced locally in Europe.

The issue came into the open after the release of a report by Nicholas Stern, former World Bank economist on the expected global cost of climate change. European politicians then took potshots at the food miles associated with Zealand products. It’s an issue which has always been there on the stage of the sustainability debate but the spotlight has mercifully missed us till now.

Helen Clark and Phil Goff both claimed this was just the latest version of agricultural protectionism from the European Union countries but their dread was palpable. Had we just been outed?

Minister of Agriculture Jim Anderton called it a “smear campaign” and said that “if European producers want to expose the real costs to the environment of food production then they are on a hiding to nothing”. Brave words and he is right about the smear campaign but wrong about the cost to the environment.

The unpalatable fact is that the best environmental option would be for Europeans to produce butter and lamb efficiently themselves for their own people rather than import it from half-way round the globe.

On top of this, anyone who has visited a dairy farm lately will realise the picture of Farmer Brown’s cows grazing lazily in the lush meadow by a stream is a long-gone, hopelessly romantic version of farming. Modern intensive and “efficient” practices are putting a huge strain on our land, water supplies and animal welfare practices. In economic terms we may produce butter more cheaply but the cost to the environment is much higher than the supposedly “inefficient” European producers.

Anderton is on stronger ground when he lambastes gas fired hothouses on the other side of the world which produce tomatoes in the off season for their locals when these tomatoes could be produced at less cost to the environment elsewhere and shipped to Europe. But even here it is doubtful. The environmental cost of fuel for transport may be less than the fuel burned to heat greenhouses but what about the cost of building the ships and the associated transport costs? All the energy expended to extract and smelt the ore into iron and steel needs to be taken into account over the lifetime of a boat. Looking at the whole picture it is Anderton himself who is on a hiding to nothing.

The issue was raised just a few days after Helen Clark had made her address to the Labour Party’s annual conference where she talked about New Zealand becoming the first sustainable country on planet earth and this included the goal of us becoming “carbon neutral”.

The harsh truth however is that we have no chance of sustainability when our economy is based on agricultural trade to the other side of the world. Environmentally aware consumers will simply not buy the idea that New Zealand butter or lamb transported halfway round the world is a good option for the environment. Neither would most New Zealanders accept that buying Australian biscuits, Californian grapes or baked beans from China when we produce them all here is good for the planet. It isn’t.

I for one resent the fact that they are on our supermarket shelves in the first place and often at a cheaper price than local products. The real cost to the environment of all this transport is never expressed in the price at the checkout.

Anderton’s comments run parallel to the half-baked argument that a person can have a “carbon neutral” holiday by simply planting a tree before they get on a plane. It’s rubbish because again the true cost to the environment is never built into the calculations.

There is a wider problem of course. In the 1980’s New Zealand abandoned the concept of self-reliance and embraced globalisation. The idea was that we would let factories close if they couldn’t compete with a flood of cheap imports and that instead we would focus our economy on what we did better than anyone else – produce and export agricultural products at a lower cost than anyone else in the world.

It was always a dumb strategy. European and North American countries continue to protect their own agricultural sectors and now quite rightly raise questions about the environmental basis of our main source of income.

How could we have been so stupid to have put all our eggs in a basket with a faulty bottom?

We have been caught like possums in the headlights.