Capitalism, like most things, is good and bad (Part Four)

Occasionally you get a trivia question in a New Zealand history quiz that goes something like this: “What significant event in New Zealand history occurred in February 1882?”  The answer is that the ship Dunedin left Otago with New Zealand’s first shipment of refrigerated meat.  When I first heard this answer I sort of shrugged and thought “so what?” but when you think about it even a little bit it’s pretty clear how refrigeration changed New Zealand’s capacity to earn money.  Refrigeration’s ability to create export dollars for New Zealand meant that all New Zealanders would one day be able to afford refrigerators (if you follow me).  In economic history then February 1882 is often heralded as a pivotal moment that sent New Zealand down the road towards prosperity.

Over the last few years there have been a few bumps along that road.  For one thing, talking about something called food miles has become fashionable.  Like most serious ideas that become a consumer fashion the bit that makes it into supermarket advertising is a very simplistic version of a complicated calculation.  At its simplest level food miles is a matter of figuring out how far an item of food has travelled and by what mode of transport to get from its point of origin to the local shop shelf.  The idea being that flying food in jet planes from the other side of the world is a lot worse for the environment than putting it on the back of a truck and driving it down the road from the local farm.  More sophisticated calculations also consider how much energy it cost to produce and package the food.

Naturally for a country like New Zealand all of this food mile talk is not good.  As we happen to be on the opposite side of the world from where all the people with money live we tend to sail all of our food exports a very long way to market.  Sometimes we fly them to market which is even worse.  Naturally in the science of marketing New Zealand has found a nuance in the food miles argument that it can massage.  We are told that New Zealand’s method of farming cows and sheep in open pasture is far less wasteful and harmful to the environment than the European method of barn farming their livestock.  If you factor this into food mile calculations then it is still better for a shopper in London to reach for New Zealand lamb than Welsh.

When I heard this argument I mostly accepted it, but not entirely.  After all, what this research tells us really is that the Europeans should make their farming practices less energy intensive, and less environmentally harmful, not that it’s a good idea for countries like New Zealand to send its produce to the other side of the world.  It’s a bit like being told your racism is ok, because the other country’s racism is a lot worse (actually, I think we did tell ourselves this in 1981); you’re still doing something bad.  Then again, given that Europeans are unlikely to change their farming methods, and that I would prefer that New Zealand continue to earn money from exports rather than be cast into the dark ages, we had better keep sending our stuff overseas.

The problem is that over the last few weeks there have been a series of stories that have increased my sense of unease.  The first of these stories reported that someone wants to barn farm cows in the Mackenzie country for the stated reason that it would be more economical and less environmentally harmful to do this.  Defending the idea from the outraged we hear a representative from Federated Farmers telling us that barn farming is a widely used practise in Europe.  I’m sure it is, in fact wasn’t it this style of farming that meant it was still ok for Europeans to buy New Zealand meat because we didn’t raise our livestock that way?  Which would surely mean that barn farming in New Zealand would remove our main defence in the food miles prosecution.

The next story to pop up on the horizon got me thinking that perhaps we were trying to defend the indefensible anyway.  A 2006 report suggested that:

  • Livestock accounted for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions which placed it above transport emissions
  • 26% of the Earth’s land surface is used for grazing (not including land used to grow feed crops to feed animals)
  • 8% of the world’s water goes to giving these animals a drink
  • 20% of the animal biomass is livestock reducing bio diversity
  • Rising demand for livestock products is leading to increasing deforestation
  • Animal waste is highly polluting

Apparently aware of these concerns the Copenhagen conference organisers have responded:

For example, beef is less available than chicken or lamb at the conference center’s cafeterias because beef production results in higher greenhouse gas emissions, Olling says. The same is true of bottled water, he says. 

USA Today

 I seem to remember something dubbed the FART tax being utterly vilified a few years ago, and manure and tractors at Parliament.  Looking back at this now it seems a bit like studying the Church putting Galileo in prison; you end up thinking: “How could they have been so blinkered?”  Mind you, as it was mainly reported as an amusing political stunt I seem to remember that I didn’t really care at the time.

Which brings us to the third and final story that came out recently:

17,000 people are attending the Copenhagen climate change conference, and they mostly came by plane.  This equates to 40,500 tonnes of emitted carbon dioxide.  The country of Morocco produced the same amount in 2006.

 Like me you are probably w(e)ary of statistics.  The adage about lies and statistics is certainly true, but without the statistics the short version of the stories above are:

  1. It’s wasteful to make food on one side of the planet and sail it to the other side (past lots of people who don’t have much food)
  2. You can play games with the figures and factor in how the food is made and all that but it is still pretty damn wasteful
  3. Endless demand for meat creates all kinds of other problems like pollution, and wasted water, and chopping down too many trees, and reducing living space for other animals
  4. Having an enormous international meeting is going to create a lot of rubbish and a lot of pollution.  If the meeting is about reducing waste and pollution then this is fairly ironic.  Journalists like irony.

 Last night I cooked a BBQ for some friends visiting from Japan.  Looking at the dazzling selection of slaughtered beasts sizzling away before me I thought: when did simple things that were good begin to get this hard?

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2 thoughts on “Capitalism, like most things, is good and bad (Part Four)

  1. Everything is relative.
    Shipping wine by boat from New Zealand to UK uses less energy and produces less carbon per case than French and Italian wine being sent to UK on lorries.

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