Monday, July 12, 2010

Owen McShane: Carbon Footprints, Food Miles, & why the Country of Origin Really Matters

I suspect few of us have been surprised by the research from the University of Otago that challenges the argument that we have to have an Emissions Trading Scheme, because otherwise the consumers of Europe and other sensitive souls civilised countries will not buy our food. We certainly have good reason to be suspicious of polls that suggest otherwise. When I used to lecture MBA students on the management of innovation and change we would have a short "workshop" on marketing pitfalls. The "public good" distortion always featured. I used to give the example of the researcher with a clipboard standing in Queen Street, or wherever and asking a random sample of male passers-by "At six o'clock at night do you watch the national news or "Baywatch"? Ninety percent answer "the News." The next question asked is "Can you tell me what was on the News last night?" Ninety percent respond "Ah, No. But did you see that big pair of boobs on Baywatch?"

We can be sure that if researchers ask customers at a supermarket "Do they prefer buying goods that have been supplied locally because it helps save the planet?" they are likely to be as honest as the male news watchers.

The other reason to be suspicious is that how many people refuse to buy Scandinavian food products even though Scandinavia has the highest ambient levels of dioxin after Japan? Very few we can be sure – if only because the Scandinavians do not make a point of advertising the fact to the rest of the world.

However, I am genuinely surprised that the reported research finding is that only 5% of shoppers are concerned about the "country of origin."

Because I am certainly concerned about the country of origin – although I could not care less about the food miles if only because we do not know how to make the meaningful calculations about such things.

However, when I am shopping in the supermarket, or other produce stores, I am concerned about the country of origin for the following products:
  • Parmesan Cheese – If it claims to be Parmigiano Reggiano, it had better come from Italy.
  • Coffee – I am unlikely to buy coffee grown in Stewart island or the Chathams.
  • Malbec wine – I always look for Malbec from Argentina, for the same reason I would hardly ever buy Sauvignon Blanc from anywhere but New Zealand.
  • Stilton Cheese – had better be from England.
  • Champagne – had certainly better be true to label.
  • Yamasa – my favourite Soy Sauce – comes from Japan.
  • Sardines – I buy the Norwegian King Oscar sardines whenever they are on the shelf.
  • Canned Tuna – does anyone even think about how far the tuna fish was from New Zealand when it was caught?
  • Tea – Does anyone expect Mr Dilmah to start growing tea in the Waikato?
  • Single Malts – need one say more?
If anyone stops buying our produce because of food miles or carbon emissions it is not because they really care about such things but because poor marketing and branding has allowed our competitors to dilute the "Country of Origin" issues that really do matter.


Dianna said...

Well said Owen. If I am buying lamb, it will be NZ Lamb ... same goes for beef, pork, venison, fish, chicken or any other kind of meat. If I am buying dairy products, then only NZ will do. I'd rather go without these items if I cannot afford them than buy cheaper from elsewhere. However, it is nothing to do with food miles, which I consider to be a load of rubbish. For the most part, it costs far more in carbon emissions to produce lamb in Britain than it does in New Zealand ... so the British housewife would be well advised to buy NZ Lamb if she has been hoodwinked into believing all the nonsense about global warming.

I'd venture to suggest that most folk buy on price and convenience or as it appears in your own case, because you like to buy the genuine article, not some el cheapo copy. Good for you.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, we buy only NZ grown or manufactured. I would like to see supermarkets identify NZ produce better so more informed choices can be made. (Assuming of course that buyers would prefer NZ stuff over imported.)

Kerry said...

There is no reason whatsoever for New Zealand to import meat or mainstream dairy products. The author correctly notes that Parmesan is Italian and Stilton English. These products, if made anywhere else, are not the genuine article. Country of origin labelling is important to me in that it allows me to refuse to buy products from certain countries with well known food safety issues.