Not buying it

by Sarah Barnett / 03 March, 2007
Spurred on by expensive advertising campaigns, British consumers are thinking harder about where their food comes from. But as the food-miles debate hots up, ironically, British supermarkets may become Kiwi exporters' greatest champions.

When British consumers cracked their Sunday papers last July, a full-page ad for UK company Dairy Crest invited them to think carefully about what they were about to stir into their English Breakfast or spread on their morning crumpet. "Why choose Anchor butter that's shipped frozen when you can choose Country Life?" the ad asked, and the pictures had a clear answer. A rusty-looking container ship sailing on a sludgy sea beneath grey skies bringing Anchor to old Blighty, or Country Life, represented by an idyllic pair of thatched farm buildings behind which, one imagines, crowds of buxom dairymaids in mob-caps were hand-churning cream only moments before it hit supermarket shelves.

The £18m campaign impugned not just Anchor's quality but also the "food miles" - its impact on the environment, with transport emissions from all the way down here.

The idea behind the ad wasn't new. In 1994, a German ad campaign compared apples with apples: the local apple was a picture of natural goodness while the New Zealand apple was smothered in oil. It is a simple concept to grasp - buy local, because the further food has had to come, the more impact it has on the environment.

As the Dairy Crest campaign came to a close, the Stern Review was published. Authored by Sir Nicholas Stern, former head of the World Bank, it counted the economic cost of climate change. One of its first options for change was to reduce consumer demand for heavily polluting goods and services.

New Zealand, still significantly reliant on the UK as a market, was suddenly under the gun by dint of our extreme distance. British MP Stephen Byers called for import taxes based on food miles, citing New Zealand kiwifruit as an example: every kilo imported to the UK, he said, produced five kilos of CO2 through air-freighting it that distance. He'd be right if kiwifruit weren't flightless - they're sea-freighted, just like 99.75 percent of the rest of our primary exports, according to Trade Minister Phil Goff.

That's why, with respect to Country Life, the Brits were sold a pup: anyone wanting to reduce their environmental impact in the UK is better off with Anchor - even when it has chugged 17,000km to get to Tescos.

?Problem one with food miles: by merely taking into account the distance travelled from field to fridge, they fail to distinguish between sea, air and road freight, and the pollution from the latter two is hugely disproportionate. It's estimated that 50 percent of the UK's food-transport emissions occur on the drive home from the supermarket - shipping all the way from New Zealand to the UK is roughly equivalent to that short drive home.

?Problem two: the underlying assumption is that all products are produced with equal efficiency everywhere and the only difference is the transport, something that a Lincoln University study comparing New Zealand and British primary produce debunked last year.

Comparing dairy products, sheep meat, apples and onions produced here and in Britain - and including the impact of shipping to the UK - the study found that lamb had about a quarter of the impact of its UK counterpart, our dairy products had about half and the levels for apples and onions came in below their UK-produced cousins, too.

Why? Thank low farming subsidies that force efficiencies, and our climate. New Zealand sheep and cows live mostly outside, eating grass. British animals spend part of the year in heated barns eating mass-produced food. Power generation in New Zealand is less reliant on fossil-fuel burning than in the UK, too.

Lincoln study co-author Dr Caroline Saunders tells the Listener that food miles is "a very simplistic concept, but isn't a true measure of environmental impact, which is what people are worried about".

Which is where, ironically, UK supermarkets may be our greatest champions. Although the concerned consumer may have little time and few resources to really research the impact that production of their food has on the world, retail chains like Tescos are launching plans to label their produce with its carbon footprint, giving consumers at-a-glance environmental ratings much more sophisticated than "travelling from New Zealand = bad".

"The supermarkets themselves," Saunders says, "can't afford to be shown up. So they are listening to the research ... [because] for Tescos to use food miles would have made them quite vulnerable to people like us or the New Zealanders to come back and say, 'No, this is a silly concept, you're actually being worse for the environment by using food miles.'"

NZ Wine Institute CEO Philip Gregan says that "if you carry it to its logical conclusion, you would end up growing bananas in the UK, because you're minimising the food miles".

So far, like Zespri and Fonterra, the institute hasn't felt the public concern about food miles in the UK hit the bottom line, although Gregan is aware of the need to stay on the ball. The last big study of emissions from New Zealand's wine industry was 10 years ago, and not comprehensive, he says, and there are issues surrounding how you'd calculate the carbon-absorbing capacity of grapevines.

There has been a national industry-wide sustainability scheme since the early 1990s, however, which they've just had audited independently, "and while it didn't come out as perfect - these things never do - it came out as performing quite well in comparison with the international systems ... The whole issue of sustainability is a very, very important one. Our belief is that if you are not demonstrably sustainable, you are just not going to be able to trade internationally. It's as simple as that."

Although we're winning on sustainability - at least compared with the UK - that will only last as long as they don't pull their socks up.

Marlborough winery Grove Mill achieved a world first last year by becoming certified Carbon Zero through Landcare Research's minimisation and mitigation scheme. Roger Kerrison, project manager for Grove Mill's environmental scheme, said that carbon neutrality is "something that exporters in New Zealand will be required to look at to give their products ultimate value in global markets".

If Fonterra and Zespri are panicking behind closed doors, you'd never know it. Zespri's Melanie Palmer says, "We're not reacting to the recent coverage - this has been on the radar for us for some time and we've got a consistent view with the government in New Zealand about the concept being misleading for consumers."

Although the Lincoln University study didn't include kiwifruit the first time round (the UK imports all its kiwifruit; about 65 percent of those imports are from New Zealand), Palmer says that Zespri is working with Lincoln University and Landcare Research to understand its carbon footprint. There's a feeling, she says, that Zespri would stack up well in an audit, "but in terms of market response, we're not hearing that it's impacting on consumer behaviour. Of course we're monitoring that and of course we'll take steps to address it if it does become an issue for consumers, but it hasn't been."

Fonterra's Ken Gerard says, "We continue to follow the issue very closely, we support the comments from the New Zealand Government very closely on this and we focus within those discussions with the government about how the New Zealand export food industry deals with the issue."

According to some analysts, they might be a bit too relaxed about the whole thing. Jude Hooson is one of three directors of the Providence Report, a consultancy group that last year released Code Green, a comprehensive study of environmental issues in New Zealand. Hooson says that some of the senior people they've spoken to in NGOs in New Zealand, and in international affairs, believe that we're not taking this issue seriously enough. "It could have a major impact on our exports, we believe, particularly to the European communities, and we're still very dependent on that part of the world."

Although there's no dent in our exports yet, all it could take, says Kerrison, is for one Guardian columnist (see page 15) to "write an article on how to live ethically and environmentally and it's 'Boycott New Zealand products', it's a big, big threat to New Zealand exporters. And I believe that if New Zealand can embrace food miles, carbon-zero and start measuring and mitigating the impacts of food miles, then the British press will go and pick on someone else before they pick on New Zealand."

Rachel Brown, CEO of the Sustainable Business Network (SBN), saw her phone lines go crazy after Prime Minister Helen Clark's speech to open Parliament in February, in which she put sustainability at the top of the agenda. Brown sees sustainability as New Zealand's chance to take strong leadership on climate change "and really protect our brand". At last, she says, the government has recognised the opportunities to be had from being a world leader in sustainable production practices.

Exporting members of the SBN are "way ahead of what the government is talking about already. Way ahead. They see it as very strong brand positioning in this global market. And they see it as being a much higher retail price at the end of the day, so they're getting much higher returns from it. There's a true value back from their products."

Brown is also quick to point out that, when it comes to food, consumers don't make choices based on just one thing - whether it's environmental concern or anything else. "The opportunity is there and I think what New Zealand should do is what the government's starting to do, which is talking about having a leadership role in sustainability ... so we really protect and grow that clean green brand. And then really work with businesses to help them to be leaders themselves, so that we really do have a strong foothold in this, so that when people think about New Zealand, they might think, 'Yeah, it's a long way from everywhere, but they're mega-efficient in how they do things, and they've got great animal welfare standards and all the bits and pieces that go with this.'"

Hooson believes we have to move fast to take advantage of this, however. There hasn't been any economic fallout yet, she says, but a bit of a time lag could lead to complacency.

The Lincoln study reassures us that we're doing okay, but as Kerrison points out, even an unjustified view of New Zealand as a polluting exporter could become entrenched, by which stage it will be too late to take the leadership role that Brown - and the PM, for that matter - have called for.

"It's not something we can sit back on and see what happens," Hooson says. "We really need to think about how we front-foot this in terms of New Zealand products. Because, from what we've read, in many cases we do have an okay story to tell, but our concern is, once these views get entrenched, with the might of the large organisations globally - and the EU as a region - we simply don't have the resources to take that on."

"Food miles is a nice simple concept," Lincoln University's Saunders says, "so for the average consumer it's something they can get hold of." Her study may have shown that we're producing more sustainably than our target market, but there are miles to go yet. If that rusty container ship becomes fixed as the symbol for New Zealand produce, Dairy

Crest could win.

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