Professor Geoffrey Savage
17 October 2005
Learning to Live with Food Miles
After two decades of consistently low oil prices, New Zealanders are now facing up to the reality of a new energy age - an age in which there is still a lot of oil left in the world, but very many more people are competing for it and steadily increasing prices.
As the cost of filling the tank goes up people are starting to think is that trip in the car really necessary? We would be fooling ourselves if we think that this is just a temporary problem that we have to deal with this year. The long term trends are very clear, and there is no doubt they will have a significant effect on how we live our lives. Things we have taken for granted, a weekend trip into the foothills or a day's skiing, will have to be planned more deliberately.
It will be same for the foods we choose to buy. The cost of fuel for transport has significant effects on retail food prices. Even food produced in New Zealand has to be transported great distances to reach our homes. We are told by economists that it is more efficient to produce food in an enormous factory where economies of scale can keep the price of food manufacturing down. The result is that many basic foods such as bread and milk have clocked big distances, commonly referred to as "food miles", before we load them into the family car. The economies of scale depend totally on the availability of cheap transport fuel which, as we have seen over the last few months, is all about to change.
Consumers who want to eat well and reduce their food budget should focus on locally produced food. These foods will have the fewest food miles and are likely to be competitively priced against foods produced in low wage economies and transported great distances. A number of other countries are starting to use prominent labels to indicate the country-of-origin. Australian foods, for example, are often labelled "Proudly Produced in Australia". New Zealand should do the same - "The Best of New Zealand" for instance. It would be even better if we could be more regional in our labelling. It is now quite common for wine to be labelled "Produced in Marlborough", so how about more regional food labelling food? This would have a number of positive effects. It is quite possible that the price of our food could be stabilised. Local food producers are likely to win consumer support because people would be reluctant to buy a product they know is loaded with excessive transport costs. New Zealand's balance of trade might improve.
In the second half of the oil age imported foods are likely to be far more expensive, which is probably no bad thing. Why should we buy out-of-season fruits and vegetables from California, with transport costs discharged into the environment, when we can eat perfectly well by following each season's production in New Zealand?
In many ways the increase in transport costs have come just a little too late. Many apple growers are busy ripping out their trees, unable to compete against overseas apples transported with cheap oil. It's a similar story for the onion growers of Pukekohe, with hundreds of hectares ploughed into the ground because of cheaper imported suppliers. Some of these industries will be able to re-establish, but others, like the apple industry, may be lost for good. It will be great shame if New Zealand consumers are stuck with apples that look great but are floury to eat, when we have had so much better.
Our food choices are going to become increasingly important. We can all do our bit for the nation's energy bill, and our greenhouse gas emissions, by buying very high quality food that is produced locally. A useful first step is to encourage our food producers to label foods so that we know how far they have travelled.
Professor Geoffrey Savage is a Food Biochemist at Lincoln University