Food-miles editorial

These editorials go out to a range of people, including several journalists. So I was most pleased to hear back from one, pretty quickly. He wants to run this as a special guest editorial in his paper! Woohoo! World fame!

The paper is the North Taranaki Midweek.

But hey, press is press.

Comment by Royal Society Policy Analyst, Dr Jez Weston

Food-miles have hit the news recently, with increasing complaints about the distance that food is transported and the environmental impact of the energy used to move food across the globe. Why should it make sense to ship a strawberry across the globe?

This argument is strongest in Europe, where farmers are keen to push the idea that eating locally-grown food is good for the environment, but is it true? According to research from Lincoln University, the answer is no.

What matters is total energy used and total greenhouse gases emitted. Obviously, shipping the food longer distances uses more energy, but that’s only a small part of the total. New Zealand’s farmers are so much more efficient at production than European farmers, and our electricity greener, that even with the extra distance, our farmers come out far ahead. NZ lamb has a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions of UK lamb.

Still, the food-miles concept is an emotive and effective argument because buyers can understand it. Food buyers don’t and can’t know the total environmental impact of foods but they do know that NZ food has been shipped far and that counts as an environmental black mark. It’s a case of bounded rationality and limited information.

There are two solutions. Firstly, educating consumers that these matters are complex and something that looks environmentally friendly may not be. However, educating foreign consumers that our food is better, for quite abstract reasons, than their locally-produced food is a hard ask. The second, as most economists would tell you, is to make the price include the cost of all the externalities. In this case, the cost is the climate damage from all the greenhouse gases emitted in producing the food. That’s the route enabling food buyers to make informed decisions about the environmental impact of their food choices.

For some foods like milk solids, energy is a big factor, but for others, this argument breaks down. If energy costs are only a small part of overall costs, then including the effect of externalities doesn’t change the final price by very much and won’t affect buying patterns much. How to deal with that problem is a whole new can of worms.

6 thoughts on “Food-miles editorial”

  1. locally produced, at least in terms of produce, tends to taste a lot better because the it is(or at least, can be) allowed to mature naturally.

    i’m looking forward to having a garden/growing some of my own food

    1. Well, fresh out of the garden tends to taste best. But I don’t think that there’s much taste difference in locally- or foreign-produced milk powder.

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