'Too early' to discuss carbon footprint - UK farmers

Efforts by New Zealand meat and wool industry officials to engage British farmers in the food miles and "carbon footprints" debate appear to have failed.

"We are not wanting to open up the food miles debate prematurely," said Thomas Binns, chairman of the livestock board of Britain's National Farmers' Union.

"In the short-term I don't think it's an area that we need to be too concerned with," he told journalists in Wellington yesterday.

Asked for an assurance that the NFU would not use a simplistic approach to food miles to attack NZ exporters, he said that the UK's major farm lobby would wait and see the results of research on how greenhouse gas emissions in food production and transport should be calculated.

"The whole issue of food miles and carbon is a big issue for us all. There is a big issue about the complexity of understanding that," he said.

Fonterra's butter exports to Britain have been attacked with a "knocking" campaign by a British dairy company which highlighted the distance the butter had to be shipped.

Former British cabinet minister Stephen Byers claimed that 1kg of kiwifruit flown from New Zealand to Europe caused greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 5kg of carbon dioxide, and National Consumer Council chairman Lord Whitty criticised the Waitrose supermarkets for stocking organic strawberries which had been flown from New Zealand.

"I'm quite well aware of why New Zealand might want to be a little bit sensitive towards food miles and carbon, given the geographic location of the country" Mr Binns said.

"New Zealand have a fantastic product that is well received in the UK – the brand is far stronger than some of the outside debates, and foodmiles we would consider as an outside debate," he said.

NZ had good branded meat products which were well-received by UK consumers, "and anything else in terms of peddling the. . . trying to expose the issue would actually be to the detriment of what is a very good product".

Mr Binns said work was being done by the industry to establish formulas for calculating greenhouse gas emissions and enabling consumers to compare goods in the supermarket.

"From NFU's point of view, we have a very strong allegiance of customers to British product, and I think if we try to put a complicated message across to consumers we may lose that," he said.

"We are about growing British share of our market," he said. While farmers did not want to get "distracted" by negative campaigns knocking NZ produce, the NFU wanted to make sure consumers had access to quality, safe products.

Meat and Wool New Zealand chairman Mike Petersen had wanted to discuss food miles and carbon footprints yesterday with the British farmer delegation.

He has previously said the way carbon footprints are assessed in the UK and New Zealand needs to be re-examined: the amount of energy used transporting food to the market was a fraction of the total energy used to produce it.

Mr Petersen said food miles was important to NZ farmers, and they supported the work being done by Government agencies in Britain to establish a common standard for measuring greenhouse gas emissions in producing and transporting food.

New Zealand scientists were among about 550 people worldwide contributing to that work, which was likely to be completed by the middle of 2008.

But Mr Binns said food miles was a "non-issue" for his delegation.

"We will wait to see whether we have a sound base to make judgement on whether there is any merit in pursuit of the food miles debate".