Monday, June 15, 2009

Delia Smith versus Johnny Rotten

Is it just me or are green concepts being used as protectionist measures? I'm not the biggest fan of free-market philosophies, but when you live in a country like New Zealand you grow up with the struggle to gain entry into overseas markets as a constant backdrop.

As I matured and attempted to gain access to bras and panties my efforts were paralleled by NZ's attempts to sell more butter to the EU (or the EEC as it then known), gain access to all those numerous Chinese consumers, and to get our food exports back into the US after our anti-nuclear stance was punished by trade restrictions. It was an epic uphill struggle for us both, and there were many setbacks. Some markets and bras proved too difficult to unlock. Sometimes we got into bed with the wrong people. We were desperate.

But now a new threat to our overseas market access is emerging ... a green chastity belt, if you will, that may keep us locked out of the choice markets. New Zealand is long, long way from most other countries in the world. We are basically half a world away from our most traditional of markets, the United Kingdom. Anything we wish to sell to the UK must be transported, and this raises the emerald spectre of food miles.

New Zealand lamb was recently praised by Delia Smith, and this landed her in some hot water with the English media ( As one website commentator put it: "In the age of food miles and carbon footprints – not to mention the need for supporting British farming – what on earth is wrong with our own [UK] lamb?". This does not bode well for New Zealand. The concept of food miles originated the the UK, and is well entrenched, and carbon is now public enemy number one. Being associated with these conceptions makes us the bad guys.

John Lydon has also recently appeared in adverts. His promote UK butter in opposition to NZ butter, 'outing' Anchor butter as an imported product. While the ads focus on taste, there is an underlying "buy local" tone ( While the Rotten butter ads never mention carbon footprints or food miles the connection is made by many viewers none-the-less. The implication is clear; buying local butter is the green thing to do ... the moral thing to do.

New Zealand had its own "buy local" advertising campaign, Buy NZ, which was recently curtailed. It was not a very well thought out concept for a trading nation like ours. The buying local mentality does not help us if people in other countries start doing it. It's a bit like a drug dealer telling his neighbours to stay clean, then walking down a couple of blocks to sell his junk. The Buy NZ campaign was a NZ Green party initiative, part of their 2005 election deal with Labour, and cost at least $NZ6.3 million (

The validity of food miles is hotly debated in New Zealand. Indeed, we are devoting rather a lot of effort into research on the matter, and there have been studies that point out that transport is a small amount of the total carbon footprint in food production, and that in New Zealand food production is very efficient as we use less fertilizer, have better production efficiency, transport our foods mainly by sea, and offset our carbon footprints with schemes to plant trees, etc. ( But while the debate and research continues here, overseas the issue has already been decided.

Whatever the truth is, the court of global public opinion has ruled in favour of local produce. Buying local is the right thing to do. It's patriotic. It's green. It's moral. It will save the world. It's simple to understand. It doesn't matter that in reality it may actually be "four four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard." ('Food That Travels Well', The New York Times, August 6, 2007) Coming to that conclusion requires a lot of calculation, thinking, reasoning, debate, effort, and a lot of prejudice to be overcome.

Delia Smith was not praising NZ lamb for its green credentials, merely its method of production and taste. This was met by criticisms that had a veneer of green moralizing, but underneath seem to have more in common with nationalistic protectionism. The Lydon ads, while mostly innocent and even funny in their execution, managed to tap into those same feelings. But sometimes instead of acting locally you need to think globally, for all meanings of the word global.


  1. You're right that the net greenhouse gas emissions of local food production in the UK can be considerably more than that of importing the same food from NZ, but another argument for local production is that it increases the resilience of the food production system.

    The world trade in food is a complex, fragile system; local food production, where feasible, is a more resilient system in which there are fewer breakable links in the chain from farm to plate. As the costs of the inputs to "conventional" agriculture (fertiliser, food etc.) increase, the economic arguments, if not the greenhouse gas arguments, in favour of remote production may become less convincing.

  2. As you say, the realities of the situation are complex and changing. But the simple concepts of food miles and carbon footprints are all the public really cares to understand.

    NZ loses out because of the public (mis-)understanding of food miles. The way such ideas are used in the media, not just the news but now in advertising, effectively amount to protectionism.

    The Green concepts NZers seem keen to embrace have the potential to cripple our export industry, not due to the complex reality but due to the simplistic public understanding of such concepts.