Carbon Footprint – NZ v UK primary industry

Useful video on Food’s true carbon cost from the FT last year – mentions New Zealand apples being sold in the UK not necessarily having a greater global footprint. Apples kept in cold storage would cause a greater carbon footprint than apples being shipped from New Zealand.

Previously food miles (the total distance traveled as food is transported from its place of origin to the consumer’s plate) was one measure of the global footprint and New Zealand is particularly vulnerable due its large quantities of agricultural exports and its geographical isolation. However, transport had been taken out as it was difficult to single out one part of the food system and conclude that because it has come from thousands of miles away it is automatically less sustainable. Therefore, the food miles argument for favouring domestic produce was only valid if food is produced using identical processes around the globe.

In order to reduce CO2 emissions, merely taxing imported food can’t be seen as the answer. As CO2 is emitted at roughly all stages of the process of transporting food to the dining room table, an appraisal of the environmental cost of devouring food from different countries should assess CO2 emissions throughout the product’s complete lifecycle. Stages in a food’s lifecycle include sowing, growing, harvesting, packaging, storage, transportation and consumption. Every phase uses energy and consequently create CO2. These include; Direct Inputs, Indirect Inputs, and Capital Inputs. A simplified flow chart representation of these inputs and the farm outputs, including environmental impacts, but excluding the transport occurring outside the farm gate is shown in Figure 1. Although it was done in 2006 a study by Saunders et al assessed the total CO2 emissions released in the supply of four New Zealand and UK food products to British markets. The report showed (see Table 1 for report data) that in the case of dairy and sheepmeat production NZ is by far more energy efficient even including the transport cost than the UK, twice as efficient in the case of dairy, and four times as efficient in case of sheepmeat.

In the case of apples NZ is more energy efficient even though the energy embodied in capital items and other inputs data was not available for the UK. Onions – where transport emissions account for around two-thirds of all CO2 resulting form the supply of New Zealand crops – are the only product for which UK consumers can reduce CO2 emissions by favouring domestic produce.

A major contributor to New Zealand’s relative CO2 efficiency in dairy production is that New Zealand agriculture tends to apply less fertilisers (which require large amounts of energy to produce and cause significant CO2 emissions) and animals are able to graze year round outside eating grass instead large quantities of brought-in feed such as concentrates. European dairy farms involve housing animals for extended periods of time. The fact that New Zealand farmers do not require subsidies to be internationally competitive, unlike their British counterparts, indicates these efficiencies of production.

Food Miles

When you head out for fish and chips in a coastal town in New Zealand you would assume that the fish are from local waters. However, in Ruatoria – East Cape of the North Island – the fish are from local waters but they were sent to Japan for processing and then exported back to Ruatoria to the fish and chip shop. How bizzare is that! Because New Zealand is a food-producing nation you would assume that what you eat is locally grown.

Every year more than 1.5 million tonnes of food is imported into NZ including:
– pork – lamb- beef – garlic – tomatoes – onions – capsicums – peas – fish

On a more bizzare situation kiwifruit being exported to Europe will have passed containers of kiwifruit being imported to NZ from Italy.

The cost of this global food chain is high with fossil fuels used in the long-distance storage and transportation. However there are other opinions on the Food Miles issue.

A UK advertising campaign suggesting that consumers are essentially eating oil when they buy New Zealand butter are evidence of a strong food miles movement in Europe. Niven Winchester from the University of Otago argued that this movement is being used in Europe by self-interested parties trying to justify protection in another pretext rather than champion environmental concerns. This is because European farm lobby groups apply significant political influence and food miles maybe used to restore support provided by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Onions – where transport emissions account for around two-thirds of all CO2resulting form the supply of New Zealand crops – are the only product for which UK consumers can reduce CO2emissions by favouring domestic produce.

A food miles tax or a change in preference towards local produce may result in greater environmental damage by encouraging consumers to purchase energy-intensive domestic varieties. Ultimately it is the carbon footprint that is the major concern for the environment and it is a much more complicated instrument than saying “This has come from Peru or New Zealand”.