Food miles issue no worry to Fonterra

By Dominique Patton

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: New zealand, Sustainability, Milk, Fonterra

Food miles, the trendy catchphrase alluding to pollution caused by
food exports, is 'a red herring' that detracts from serious
environmental issues to be faced by food producers, says Fonterra's
trade strategy manager, Fiona Cooper-Clarke.

The dairy co-operative that exports to 140 countries around the world has come under attack in British media for the long distances traveled by its products. But Cooper-Clarke says that the basis for linking the distance traveled by food before it is consumed has already been discredited in numerous studies.

She told that Fonterra will not be diverting any marketing resources to respond to those organisations using the food miles concept for promotion.

UK-based Dairy Crest underlined growing consumer awareness of the food miles concept when it launched an advertising campaign this year comparing its locally produced products with images of Fonterra's Anchor brand butter traveling thousands of miles to Britain on a rusty ship.

But at Fonterra food miles, or the distance traveled between the site of production and place of consumption, is a 'silly'​ concept that does not warrant much investment in time nor marketing resources.

"There's been no noticeable impact on our sales in the UK [from the Dairy Crest ad campaign] and that suggests that there's no warrant for a response through marketing,"​ she said.

Instead the company and others in New Zealand have to address the issue at a scientific level, making sure that public policy makers are aware of a number of studies that compare the New Zealand food industry's impact on the environment with that of other countries, she said.

Several studies have sought to assess the merits of using food miles to evaluate environmental damage by food producers, with many showing New Zealand producers in a more favourable light than European counterparts. A study in Germany last year found that New Zealand farmers used less energy producing lamb than German producers while recent research at Lincoln University showed that producing milk in New Zealand and shipping dairy products to Britain was less than half as costly - in terms of energy and emissions - than UK milk.

As a result, Fonterra, and other New Zealand food producers are more exasperated than concerned by the resurgence of debate about food miles last week. This time, kiwi growers Zespri were the centre of attention when media reports said they that flying 1kg of kiwifruit from New Zealand to Europe causes 5kg of carbon to be discharged into the atmosphere.

"We continue to monitor this issue but I think it will blow itself out very quickly,"​ added Cooper-Clarke.

Instead the food miles concept is simply considered the latest form of protectionism. The feeling was voiced by New Zealand trade minister Phil Goff last week.

"Calls for food miles to be used in fact contradict the goal of reducing global emissions and are often a thinly disguised appeal for self-interested protectionism,"​ he said in a statement.

Cooper-Clarke added that the stalled Doha round has left a gap in discussion on trade issues, creating "a vacuum where people start talking about other concepts"​.

"Only a few months ago the Europeans were talking about multifunctionality, where agriculture has multiple purposes including a social objective. We argue that the best route to environmental sustainability is through the market,"​ she said.

Fonterra, owner of New Zealand's largest private oil tanker fleet, says it has been working to lower energy costs and manage waste and water long before the concept of food miles was invented. It recently announced that cutting back on energy and water consumption had earned it recognition from Enviro-Mark, an environmental management system marketed by Landcare Research.

The organisation encourages food manufacturers and exporters to promote 'life cycle thinking', looking at a carbon emissions profile for each step of the supply chain.

"Rather than focusing on the distance travelled, this is a more accurate and holistic approach,"​ its website explains.

Landcare Research scientists have responded to the recent food miles debate by arguing that New Zealand exporters can in fact thrive on growing concern over climate change by taking steps to reposition the country's 'clean, green' image.

Related topics: Markets, Oceania, Supply chain, Dairy

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