Local lamb for the chop

Observations on trade

"We are being made scapegoats in a way that is patently inaccurate and that creates a lot of anger," says the New Zealand minister of trade, Phil Goff, visiting Britain to try to convince ethical consumers here that eating his country's produce is environmentally sound.

The source of this anger is the regular appearance in the British media of snappy statistics about the benefits of buying local food and the environmental consequences of importing produce from New Zealand. The idea is simple and fashionable: the further food has to come to reach your plate, the more carbon costly "food miles" it accumulates and the more harm is done to the environment. Cutting back on imports, goes the argument, benefits the environment.

But, according to Goff, such simplistic reasoning may erect artificial trade barriers with no benefit to greater sustainability.

New Zealand feels particularly hard done by. Last year, one newspaper attacked the damage done to the environment by flying kiwi fruit to the UK. In fact, as furious kiwi-fruit producers rushed to point out, the overwhelming majority of New Zealand's fruit come to Britain by sea, widely acknowledged to carry a low carbon footprint. Then there were the strawberries. A UK article castigated New Zealand for the environmental cost of flying strawberries to the UK. Goff points out to me that the country does not, in fact, export strawberries to the UK. A non-existent journey, of course, emits no carbon.

New Zealand's sense of injustice is compounded by its belief that in some cases, food imported over distances may be more environmentally sound than its locally grown equivalent.

Goff believes that New Zealand's benign climate lends itself to more efficient farming than is possible in the UK, putting it "light years ahead" in terms of energy consumption. A study conducted by New Zealand's Lincoln University found that producing one kilogram of lamb in the UK was four times as costly in carbon terms as producing the same amount in New Zealand; even taking into account the environmental cost of transport, some imported foods may be far less energy-intensive than their local counterparts. Studies in Germany and the UK have reached similar conclusions, Goff claims.

There are, however, doubts about how accurate any such study can be. "No two farms are the same and it's inherently difficult to judge their environmental impact," says Richard Ali, chief executive of the English Beef and Lamb Executive. "Food miles are a good proxy for carbon footprints."

Goff offers other reasons to support free trade. "If you'd like to produce everything yourself, it would be at much greater cost to the consumer as well as much greater cost to the environment . . . and it would hurt low-income consumers the most."

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger