Buy NZ lamb to save planet – UN

November 3, 2012

British farmers have been quiet about food miles since research began to show that meat produced here had a smaller carbon footprint than theirs in spite of the distant it travels to market.

That has now been backed up by a United Nations study which produced the headline of the week in the Daily Mail:

Buy New Zealand lamb to save the planet, say UN scientists – because British farming methods produce twice as much greenhouse gas:

British shops should sell New Zealand lamb rather than homegrown meat if they want to help protect the environment, experts have claimed.

The suggestion, likely to outrage British farmers, comes after a study found the amount of man-made greenhouse gases from food production is twice as much as previously estimated.

Growing food for sheep, cows and pigs takes up far more land and emits more greenhouse gases than producing crops for human consumption.

And some methods produce more harmful gases than others, they said.

The study claims Britain, for instance, would be better off importing lamb from New Zealand which has been produced more efficiently than on its own farms. . .

This could be used as an argument for going vegetarian but a lot of land which is suitable for grazing animals isn’t suitable for cropping.
The report doesn’t go into the environmental and economic impact or animal welfare concerns of killing all the farm animals if their pasture was converted to crop land.
A media release on the report from  the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR) says:
. . . While previous studies have looked at the contribution of agriculture to emissions, Climate Change and Food Systems assesses the entire food system’s emissions “footprint”—in total somewhere between a fifth and third of the greenhouse gases emitted by people on this planet.  This figure accounts for every aspect of food production and distribution—including growing crops and raising livestock, manufacturing fertilizer, and storing, transporting and refrigerating food. Agriculture accounts for around 80 percent of these emissions, but the combined contribution of transport, refrigeration, consumer practices and waste management is growing. . .
Crops also need fertiliser, storage, transport and refrigeration and contribute to waste.
However, the report does vindicate those of us who say that bringing agriculture into the ETS when none of our competitors are faced with similar penalties would do no good.
It would impose costs on what the UN recognises as very efficient food production and provide a perverse incentive for farming in other countries with less efficient systems.

Little Green Lies

July 18, 2012

The green movement is very good at emotional claims, but not all of them stack up under scrutiny.

The book Little Green Lies: An exposé of twelve environmental myths by Jeff Bennett,has put a dozen of the claims under scrutiny and found them wanting:

There are twelve propositions addressed in the twelve chapters of this book. Although each proposition is considered in a separate chapter, many of them are interrelated. In the list of the propositions that follows, a short outline of each ‘little green lie’ is set out along with a brief exposition of the counter-proposition that will be advanced in this volume.

Proposition 1:‘Peak Oil’ has been reached.
The annual production of oil, while rising over the last century, is about to fall because of growing scarcity. Such is our dependence on oil and the fast rate at which we are using it that we now need to take active policy measures to save what we have left.
BUT
No-one knows for sure what petroleum reserves are available. As known reserves are depleted, price rises stimulate more exploration and technological advances that will expand the available supply of petroleum as well as substitute energy sources.

Proposition 2: Renewable energy production should be stimulated.
Non-renewable energy supplies are being depleted so quickly that we will soon experience power shortages. Non-renewables are also ‘dirty’ sources of energy. Renewables must be stimulated to ensure the on-going supply of clean energy.

BUT
Renewable energy sources are limited in their short to medium term potential to meet demand. Picking ‘winners’ to be stimulated is likely to be mistaken given rapidly evolving technological change. Renewables have their own environmental downsides.

Proposition 3: Consumption choices need to be informed by products’ ‘food miles’/’ecological footprint’/’embodied energy’/’virtual water’/’carbon footprint’.
People need to be aware of the impacts they have on energy/the ecology/water/climate etc. when they buy goods and services so that they can reduce their impact on that resource. Each of these resources is scarce and we need to conserve them, especially for future generations.

BUT
By focusing on just one scarce resource (water, energy etc.) in their consumption decisions, people can ignore their impacts on other scarce resources and result in a ‘false economy’. What happens when the ‘virtual water’ index goes against the ‘embodied energy’ index? Which index is ‘trumps’?

Proposition 4: World population should be capped.
More people mean more pressure on the world’s scarce resources, including the environment. The only way to protect the environment, stop starvation and ensure that there are enough resources for future generations is to stop population growth.
BUT
People are a resource. They have the capability to develop innovative technologies and institutions to deal with growing scarcity in specific resources. New ways to satisfy peoples’ wants and new sources of scarce resources can be discovered.

Proposition 5: Economic growth and trade are bad for the environment.
Economic growth, fuelled by international trade, means more pressure on scarce resources including the environment. To protect the environment and to save resources for the future, trade should be restricted to cut growth.

BUT
Trade and growth bring wealth to people. Wealth increases peoples’ demands for environmental protection and the ability of society to provide environmental protection, especially through technological development.

Proposition 6:No waste should go to landfill.
Waste should not be wasted. It is a resource that can be re-used and re-cycled. Sending waste to landfill means that more ‘virgin’ resources must be harvested/mined. Waste in landfill can also be a source of air and water pollution.
BUT
Recycling and re-using ‘waste’ is a process that uses scarce resources. Policies that prevent landfill disposal can cause more resources to be used than they save and do not necessarily reduce virgin resource use. Landfills need not be pollution sources.

Proposition 7:Water and energy should be used ‘efficiently’, whatever it costs.
Water and energy are scarce resources. Their use needs to be minimised so that future generations will have enough. Governments should invest in technologies that ensure the least amounts of energy and water are used in producing goods and services.
BUT
Investing in ‘efficiency’ measures means using other scarce resources as substitutes for energy and water. A ‘false economy’ results because the other resources including labour and capital may well be scarcer than energy and water.

Proposition 8:The environment is of infinite value and must not be harmed.
The environment provides us with our ‘life-support-system’. Without it we cannot survive and so we should protect it at all costs. We should make absolutely sure that rare and endangered species are cared for so that their numbers increase.
BUT
Without the environment we could not exist and so its absolute value is infinite. However, that is not the relevant question for policy. Changes to the state of the environment yield finite benefits and costs that need to be traded off.

Proposition 9: We must reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to avoid global climate change.
Human induced global climate change is a serious threat to the continued ability of the planet to support humanity and current ecosystems. The damage caused by climate change will be so large that GHG emissions must be reduced now.
BUT
Reducing GHG emissions would be costly. The decision to bear those costs should be made with reference to the expected benefits reduced GHG emissions would yield. Reducing GHG emissions will not eliminate the risk of climate change.

Proposition 10: The care of the environment cannot be entrusted to the private sector.
The environment provides ‘public goods’ that should be available to all for free. That means the government has to be responsible for caring for the environment. The private sector will either destroy it or try to profit from it.
BUT
The public sector will face problems in managing the environment. Information for decision making is costly. Incentives for politicians and bureaucrats can conflict with public best interest. Private solutions can be lower cost and better aligned with society’s well-being.

Proposition 11: Agriculture and mining are always in conflict with the environment.
Agriculture and mining are extractive industries which deplete our stock of natural resources, often irreversibly. They also cause environmental degradation including soil erosion, biodiversity loss and chemical contamination of water and air.
BUT
While there are some trade-offs between agriculture, mining and the environment these can be reduced through the use of management techniques and technologies. Offsets and remediation work on farms and mines can improve the environment.

Proposition 12: Decisions regarding the future of the environment should be made using the ‘precautionary principle’.
If there is a risk that a proposed action will harm the environment, the precautionary principle requires policy makers to place the burden of proof on those proposing an action that it will not cause environmental damage.
BUT
There is always some risk of environmental harm resulting from human action. Demonstrating that there is no risk of harm is impossible. There are also uncertainties associated with not taking action which the precautionary principle ignores.

This writer is not an ill-informed zealot. His qualifications are impressive:

Jeff Bennett is Professor of Environmental Management in the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the Australian National University. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. Jeff lectures, researches and consults on the economics of environmental policy issues.

None of this takes away from the need to tread lightly on the earth but it does reinforce the need to base claims on science.

Good intentions aren’t enough if they’re doing more harm than good.

Hat Tip: Kiwiblog


Vegetarians not so green?

February 28, 2010

Vegetables good – meat bad. That’s what we keep being told by people wanting us to save the planet by going vegetarian,

But a study by the World Wildlife Fund has found that the environmental impact of growing some meat substitutes are worse than that from raising animals.

It has often been claimed that avoiding red meat is beneficial to the environment, because it lowers emissions and less land is used to produce alternatives.

But a study by Cranfield University, commissioned by WWF, the environmental group, found a substantial number of meat substitutes – such as soy, chickpeas and lentils – were more harmful to the environment because they were imported into Britain from overseas.

Far be it for me to stick up for anyone advocating we all give up meat, but this is the food miles argument which Lincoln University proved doesn’t necessarily stack up.

How far produce travels is only one factor. Lincoln’s study found New Zealand’s free range meat had a smaller environmental footprint even when transport was accounted for than meat from intensively farmed animals sold on local markets.

The study concluded: “A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK.”

The results showed that the amount of foreign land required to produce the substitute products – and the potential destruction of forests to make way for farmland – outweighed the negatives of rearing beef and lamb in the UK.

An increase in vegetarianism could result in the collapse of British farming, the study warned, causing meat production to move overseas where there may be less legal protection of forests and uncultivated land.

Meat substitutes were also found to be highly processed, often requiring large amounts of energy to produce. The study recognised that the environmental merits of vegetarianism depended largely on which types of foods were consumed as an alternative to meat.

It’s good to see an environmental group taking the trouble to investigate claims that vegetarian diets are better for the planet than those which include meat and that the study looked at the economic impact a mass conversion to vegetarianism would have.

This study shows that working out the green credentials of any produce is a complex business and being vegetarian isn’t necessarily better for the environment than eating meat.


Brit report finds faults in food miles

August 13, 2009

A report for Britain’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) debunks the idea of food miles as an indicator of sustainable development.

Findings included:

*  the  impacts of food transport are complex, and involve many trade-offs between different factors. A single indicator based on total food kilometres travelled would not be a valid indicator of sustainability

 * Food transport accounted for an estimated 30 billion vehicle kilometres in 2002, of which 82% are in the UK.It also found production methods mattered and, for example, it can be more sustainable in energy effciency terms, to import tomatoes from Spain than to produce them in heated glasshouses in Britain outside summer.

* Using more local food might increase food miles because fully laden large vehicles would be replaced by more vehicles carrying less.

The report supports research by Lincoln University which found lamb, milk and fruit produced in New Zealand and shipped to Britain produced less CO2 than the same products grown in Britain.

Food miles is a simple concept but this study shows sustainability is complex and can’t be based on only one factor.


Food miles fallacy foiled by facts

February 25, 2009

The food miles campaign is thought to be one reason for a 15% fall in New Zealand lamb sales in Britain.

For four years now some UK shops, like Tesco, have been promoting the food miles concept, meaning the closer to home something is produced the more sustainable it is. Now, the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research says it can prove that theory wrong. 

“Our cattle are grazed on grass rather than grain, and they’re housed outside most of the year rather than being in heated sheds,” says John Ballingall, “so the energy used in producing New Zealand food is often lower than the UK.”

In fact, the research shows that an average trip by car to the supermarket in Britain, 6.4km, to buy the weekly groceries uses the same amount of energy as shipping that food 8500km.

That’s a very impressive statistic but ecopolice don’t always let the facts get in the way of their religion and the green message is even infecting British hospitals which are being encouraged to  serve less meat and cheese  in a misguided attempt to be kinder on the environment.

Hospitals should serve meals which meet the dietry and health needs of the patients at the lowest cost and base their policies on facts not politics.

Less meat and cheese may be better for the health of some patients but not necessarily all and buying local isn’t necessarily better for the environment.

Food transported 100  miles by 10 trucks may have more impact on the environment than having it moved 1000 miles by one truck and as the NZIER figures above show going thousands of kilometres by ship is better than a few by car.

Besides, the distance food travels is only one factor in an assessment of it’s environmental footprint. A Lincoln University study showed New Zealand dairying produced less greenhouse gas than British dairying, even when the shipping was taken into account.

Given how short most hospital stays are these days patients are probably not in danger from the new prescription for their diets, but the implications of the other “green” initiative of greater sterilisation and reuse of equipment could be very serious if it increased the risk of infection.

However, the food miles debate might be academic because sustainability tends to be the concern of those wealthy enough to choose and as the recession bites households and hospitals alike are more likely to be more concerned about how much food costs than how far it travels.

Hat Tip: No Minister


Embedded water new hurdle

August 2, 2008

First it was food miles, now it’s the carbon footprint and soon it might be embedded water.

The NZ Farmers Weekly (not on line) warns that virtual or embedded water – the amount used to produce food – could be the next hurdle primary producers have to leap over for export markets.

…this is a natural extension of carbon footprint analysis, only more specific to New Zealand’s pasture and irrigation-based farming systems.

If we thought we were in trouble on our carbon footprint, consider what the bean-counters might make of our water use. It’s questionable how well placed New Zealand would be, for instance, if European Union food officials started routinely asking for an audit of our water use from farm to shipment or flight.

The push for livestock traceability would pale in comparison.

Fortunately judging by a Crop and Food Research project announced last week, agricultural scientists seem to have seen the threat coming. The Crown Reserach Institute aims to develop plants with much-imporved root systems that require less water, pesticides and fertiliser, enabling New Zealand to compete strongly in overseas markets where consumers are increasingly demanding “green” food products.

This project tagged “roots for sustainability” seems a natural response to farmer demands for cheaper and longer-lasting plant growth – and better profitability. But like so many forms of farming innovation, it can also be seen as a response to changing political and social trends.

Mainstream awareness of embedded water is unlikely to be far away and NZ would be in the spotlight because of its growing dependence on man-made irrigation schemes.

When the world is short of food there will be something amiss if we are penalised for using innovative techniques which boost production providing we use them efficiently and sustainably.

Hopefully Crop and Food research is correct in asserting that its project … will see more effective water, nutrient and pesticide use, with reduced nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.

All of which have environmental and economic benefits.

To alternatively do little is to allow the concept of embedded water to leak into people’s way of thinking and for farmers’ reputations to again take a battering. If this latest environmental concept indeed sticks between people’s ears, agriculture will need to come up with quick answers and real solutions.

Pointing out that putting unnecessary hurdles in the way of producers inevitably leads to higher costs for consumers won’t do it. We need to be prepared to counter both the facts and the emotion this notion will generate.


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