Food miles or political mileage?

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When we can, we should support food production and supply that has as little impact on the environment as possible. But does this always mean favouring local made food over imported food?

In that bastion of interventionism and state-molded markets, the UK, there has been much talk about the environmental unfriendliness of imported food. This is because, so the argument goes, food that has to be transported longer distances requires more greenhouse gasses to be emitted in getting it to its final destination due to additional transportation energy that is consumed in the process. As everyone knows, CO2 is the devil and global warming is about to kill us all, so importing food is a bad idea for the planet. Right? And so the answer is put artificial pressure on the market by introducing what is effectively a tariff – an imported food tax to discourage people from buying better or more affordable in the interests of buying domestic products.

I’m not even going to touch the global warming/climate change issue here or even the issue of tariffs in general, I’m just bringing this subject up at all because of a piece I saw today in a fish and chip shop’s copy of the University of Otago magazine. Fish and chip shops being what they are, it’s not a recent issue – October 2007. The story is by Dr Niven Winchester (pictured) of the University’s Department of Economics.

Obviously with a fairly geographically isolated country like New Zealand, which depends as heavily as it does on exports, the prospect of other countries making it harder for our products to be sold there is a troubling one for our economy. But what if this tough talk on imports just amounted to economic redneckery (I claim ownership of that word) dressed up as genuine scientific concern, riding a wave of environmental hysteria?

What Dr Winchester points out is as follows:

Researchers at Lincoln University have … found that, having accounted for CO2 emissions from production and transportation, New Zealand lamb and dairy products supplied to UK supermarkets generate, respectively, around one fourth and one half of the CO2 generated by the supply of UK alternatives.

As it turns out, if food was carbon taxed, imported food from New Zealand would still be cheaper, and a move to restrict imports and towards food produced int he UK, CO2 emissions would increase and not decrease. Oh dear, our UK greenie friends. Maybe free trade is your friend after all…

Glenn Peoples

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Mr Dennis January 24, 2009, 10:11 pm

    “Food miles” is an emotive, wishy-washy concept that is torn to shreds whenever someone actually looks into it. I understand it also produces less carbon to grow roses in Kenya and fly them to the UK than to grow them in the UK.

    The problem is that most people don’t look at the science, they just get caught up in the slogans.

  • Dan January 27, 2009, 4:15 am

    When I first started working as a lawyer, I was primarily concerned with environmental law and the hot topics of the time — environmental accounting and “pollution prevention pays”. Environmental accounting was just coming out of its infancy and still was merely a system intended to hijack the language of environmental debate by those who deemed any human activity to be detrimental to the environment. By claiming that the discounted present value of any economic activity was less than the (usually non-discounted) extraordinary environmental damage that would result from that activity over time, the environmental accountants were able to justify a host of energy-saving, soil conservation, air cleaning, and other very expensive technologies and controls that no rational business person would look at twice. But it’s important to remember that the environmental accounting language is rarely, if ever, about the environment. It’s about selling products. The food miles scam Glenn describes is clearly a way to get around trade rules and anti-tariff provisions for the purpose of subsidizing UK farmers.

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