The energy footprint of fabulous New Zealand food

The energy footprint of fabulous New Zealand food

‘Food miles’ is a catchy phrase that’s been around for a decade but which has suddenly sprung into prominence.

‘Food miles’ describes the energy (and CO2 emissions) involved in transporting food from distant countries to Northern Hemisphere consumers.

It’s a negative indicator – the more food miles traveled, the less desirable for the planet.

It’s very negative for New Zealand. We are known for our remoteness – the phrase ‘tyranny of distance’ belongs uniquely to us. It’s our particular challenge to be located thousands of miles away from the rest of the world, making it expensive for us to export our products and harder to compete.

So it would be hard to find a worse slogan than ‘food miles’, which highlights our distance from everywhere and implies that our food products cause harm to the environment.

The slogan is based on a false generalisation that is utterly dangerous to New Zealand.

It implies an apparent solution for Northern Hemisphere consumers – don’t buy New Zealand products; buy locally instead.

This apparent solution looks sensible – after all, surely it makes sense for a London family to buy food produced in the south east of England rather than from a distant country?

But the south east of England, like many other industrialised areas, isn’t great at food production. A London family – like millions of families in other Northern Hemisphere industrial areas – must buy food produced elsewhere.

It’s fact of life that food must be transported from other places to large population centres. New Zealand makes its living from that fact.

‘Food miles’ singles New Zealand out from other food producing countries, because we are more distant than any of them, and threatens us more than any others because of the false generalisation that distance is the major problem.

In fact, the problem is not necessarily distance, but actual emissions – since products can be transported huge distances by sea or rail without undue emission levels.

We need to pull apart the ‘food miles’ slogan and reveal the falsehood at its heart.

Because it’s not just miles that matter, but the total energy used in getting the food to the consumer as well as in producing it in the first place.

Rather than just food miles, we should be looking at the total ‘energy footprint’ of traded food products. This would be a more accurate way of looking at the environmental effect of global trade in food.

It would show just how energy efficient New Zealand food products are, even when the energy use for transport is included.

Scientists at Lincoln University have already done the analysis.

It shows that New Zealand dairy products have an energy footprint only half the size of UK-produced dairy products. For lamb, the footprint is a quarter the size of the UK’s. For apples, it’s a third the size.

And all these measures include the energy use in transporting the New Zealand product to the UK.

So energy-wise, New Zealand is at least twice as efficient in producing (and transporting) dairy, four times as efficient for lamb and three times as efficient for apples.

This superiority is a result of our temperate climate that means our pasture animals eat grass, not grain from harvester machines, and sleep outside, not in heated stalls, and our fruit grows on trees outside, not in hothouses.

It’s also a result of outstandingly efficient farm management, honed over generations of Kiwi farmers, and propelled along by ground breaking agricultural science.

This efficiency and sustainability is also prominent in our other, non-agricultural industries.

This is the real story that deserves to be told – a positive story of energy efficiency and business capability capable of offsetting even the thousands of miles required to get our produce to market. We must refuse to accept the food miles fallacy and instead promote our superior energy footprint in producing and exporting our fabulous foods and other goods.

The story of the energy footprint of New Zealand products – I won’t get tired of telling it, and I hope all New Zealanders start telling the same story.

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8 Nov, 2006

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