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Food miles issue heats up

by Tracy Miles
Zucchini crop

The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic

The international campaign against high food miles and in favour of buying local is heating up even more following the release of the Nicholas Stern climate change report.

Fears are that it will impact on New Zealand’s conventional food export industry, but it will also have implications for organics.

Organic Food Miles         
In addition to helping fix the problem because of its low environmental impact, the NZ organic export industry could also be affected by changes arising from the food miles issue.

According to Cerasela Stancu in a 2006 sustainability and society report for Landcare Research in New Zealand, environmental groups and local food movements in Europe have been lobbying for farm assurance schemes and organic certification bodies to introduce food miles into certification.

She reports that the UK Organic Action Plan aims for 70% of in-season organic food to be sourced from within the UK by 2010.

The Italian Government has passed legislation for local authorities to include organic and local food in school catering; and funding from the European Union has been used to support local food initiatives to develop farmers’ markets and local food brands.

Recently, the UK Soil Association announced food miles might be considered in guidance for ethically concerned consumers. Stancu said this could be a turning point in organic labelling and result in decertification of previously approved products.

NZ organics can meet UK shortfalls
The NZ Soil & Health Association of NZ said its Organic 2020 vision backs the principle of reduced food miles but spokesperson Steffan Browning said the association still wants sustainably produced organic goods from New Zealand being efficiently shipped to complement shortfalls in local British product.

NZ Prime Minister, Helen Clark has signaled her Government’s intention to take the food miles campaign seriously, saying consumers overseas opting to buy local products in an effort to cut carbon emissions from transporting goods was a key risk.

Unless New Zealand was seen to be going the extra mile on sustainability, it ran the risk of being labelled as unsustainable producers and major carbon emitters just trying to get produce to overseas markets, she said

Her announcement comes on the heals of the Stern report, which says failure to tackle climate change could push world temperatures up by 5 degrees Celsius over the next century.  The British Government reacted to the report by calling for urgent action on climate change.

NZ Greens appeal to UK Greens          
The NZ Green Party also has appealed to the British Greens and other British organisations not to support a campaign against NZ dairy and lamb on the basis of greenhouse emissions.

“We have written to British Green parties and other organisations campaigning on food miles to point out that the evidence shows that New Zealand dairy and lamb actually has lower emissions than that commercially produced in Britain,” said Greens co-leader, Russell Norman.

The Greens also wrote to Dairy Crest, the butter company campaigning against Fonterra’s Anchor brand butter on the basis of food miles, and the National Farmers Union who were supporting the Dairy Crest campaign.

“We have also written to a variety of non-government organisations campaigning on food miles including Friends of the Earth, Women’s Environmental Network and the Soil Association.”

Lamb and Dairy Exports          
Total greenhouse emissions released in the production and transport of dairy and lamb shipped to Britain from New Zealand are lower than emissions generated by the production of dairy and lamb in Britain,  said Mr Norman.

A Lincoln University study led by Professor Caroline Saunders found that a group of NZ export products were lower on carbon emissions than their UK equivalents. 

The study based its environmental impact calculations on a life cycle assessment (LCA) approach and included the energy use and CO2 emissions associated with farm production and transport to the UK.

“This is a much more valid comparison than just distance travelled as it reflects the differences in countries’ production systems,” said the study’s authors, Caroline Saunders, Andrew Barber and Greg Taylor.

They found the UK uses twice as much energy per tonne of milk solids produced than NZ, even including the energy associated with transport from NZ to the UK This reflects the less intensive production system in NZ than the UK, with lower inputs including energy.

Roughly similar findings applied to New Zealand lamb, apples and to onions in the UK onion off-season.

Buying Local Benefits Communities              
The Green’s Mr Norman said his party supports buying locally grown food for many reasons including freshness and benefits to local communities and economies.

If New Zealand was to get a fair hearing in Britain and the rest of Europe it needed to reduce Greenhouse emissions, which make New Zealand the 11th worst polluter on a per capita basis.

“Moreover, the low emissions of our dairy and lamb are, in part, due to our large renewable electricity generation," he said.

Food Miles Concern for Business          
Earlier this year, Cerasela Stancu, in a report for Landcare Research, said food miles were an increasing concern for the business community.

New Zealand food products have often been targeted by overseas campaigns for low food miles to illustrate the long distance products travel to export markets such as Europe, North America or Japan, she said.

Transporting export goods to overseas markets was a “direct and indisputable” contribution of world trade to environmental degradation and climate change.

Trade liberalisation has resulted in a large number of countries exporting goods, including food.

“Formal policies to source food locally are difficult for governments to promote as they are potentially in conflict with free trade objectives.”

Country of Origin Labeling            
The organic certifier Bio-Swiss requires the source of the product (imported or national) to be specified on its labels.  In the US, country of origin labeling already exists, while development of an eco-label based on the principle of local sourcing and environmental impact of transportation has been explored in Iowa.
Consolidation of food supply chains and concentration of sales in supermarkets are primary drivers for food miles, she said.

However, increasing evidence showed many large food retailers and supermarkets consider sustainability as a standard performance issue, and adaptation to climate change is part of their long-term strategic planning, she said.

In 2005, Wal-Mart announced it would boost energy efficiency, increase organic food sales, reduce waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2012.

Carbon a Risk to Brands                
Stancu said the UK Carbon Trust has investigated the risks to brands in the UK from climate change. The food and beverage sector was found to have the second highest risk, of 10% of its market value (after airlines).

She said low-carbon or carbon neutral food products have existed for a decade. Car rentals, bank loans and other products such as flowers and carpets are now being offered as carbon neutral.  Mainstream trademarks used overseas include Carbon Neutral, Climate Cool and Climate Care.

NZ Food Industry Should Assess Products             
To ensure that New Zealand food products are recognised for their low-impacts, the food industry’s producers and exporters need to be able to demonstrate the low environmental impacts and carbon intensity of their products by undertaking life cycle assessments, she said.

Assessments would determine whether more energy efficient production practices can compensate for food miles.

In New Zealand, CarboNZero®, developed by Landcare Research, is a brand that certifies products as carbon neutral, where emissions have been reduced and remaining unavoidable emissions have been offset by purchasing carbon credits, said Stancu.

New Zealand’s first exporter to get CarboNZero certification was the New Zealand Wine Company (NZWC), and is used by the company in its marketing.

Food miles: 214,611 Kilometres             
In New Zealand, the food miles issue means that, when the Green’s Sue Kedgley did a survey, a basket of 21 mostly fresh foods from local supermarkets had collectively travelled 214,611 kilometres to get here. 
Earlier this year, the Government announced funding of $11.5 million will be made available over the next three years to fund a Buy Kiwi-Made programme.

The Buy Kiwi-Made programme was part of the post election cooperation agreement between the Government and the Green Party and was the  brainchild of late Greens Co-Leader Rod Donald.

However, both Labour and National voted against Sue Kedgley’s food labelling bill which would have introduced mandatory country of origin labelling for food.


Cerasela Stancu's report for Landcare Research

Supermarket Food Home Truths

Buy organic or buy local: which comes first?

Food labelling bill rejected 

The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic