By Macaulay Jones, Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor Climate Change, Trade, Science & Innovation
Supporting local businesses benefits the economy, but supporting local products is not always beneficial for the climate.
As the world and New Zealand continues to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and policies enacted to curb its spread, many consumers are making a conscious effort to support local businesses.
Local businesses directly and indirectly support local communities and are often owned and operated by active members of the community. However, while supporting local businesses is a great way of helping your neighbours financially recover from the pandemic, extending this principle to choosing to buy local products as a means of taking climate action may not offer the benefits for the atmosphere you’d expect.
This November thousands of representatives from different governments, NGOs, businesses, academic institutions, media organisations and other interested bodies flock to Glasgow for the twenty sixth United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26).
This year’s conference comes in the wake of the release of the United Nation’s sixth assessment report on the physical science basis of climate change, a report described as “a code red for humanity” by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres.
Federated Farmers has submitted to the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the approach New Zealand will be taking to these climate change negotiations. In our submission we urged New Zealand politicians and officials to take a more ambitious approach in the talks and to use COP26 as a platform to showcase policy settings that have the potential to produce more food, more efficiently, with fewer emissions.
New Zealand farmers are among the most emissions efficient in the world at producing nutrition dense and highly sought-after products. There are many complex reasons for this impressive emissions efficiency including favourable climatic conditions, fertile soils, a long history of stable governance and a cutting-edge network of agricultural research and development institutions.
A factor often not discussed is how the decades of farming without subsidies has led to New Zealand farmers operating farms as agile businesses, minimizing waste, embracing innovation, maximizing the quality of outputs and adapting to changing consumer preferences – and therefore increasing emissions efficiency.
This efficiency means it is often better for the atmosphere for consumers in distant international markets to consume New Zealand food than to eat local products (even after the emissions from transport are considered).
It makes sense, for the economy and for the atmosphere, to consume products made where it is most efficient to do so.
A typical New Zealand flat white will likely contain home-grown milk, but could also contain coffee from Brazil and sugar from Thailand and will be served in a cup perhaps from Australia. In this example, New Zealand consumers are benefitting from the increased consumer choice trade has facilitated, international farmers are benefitting from access to New Zealand consumers and the climate is benefiting from products being made where it is most efficient to do so.
However, unfortunately many subsidies and trade distorting policies persist in the global food system. Farmers in some countries are being encouraged to produce too much of a product in which there is no comparative advantage to do so, and farmers in other countries are unable to get goods to international markets due to prohibitive trade policies.
In the case of an extreme weather event that impacts production, in redistributing goods the global supply chain is not only battling with this immediate disruption but also a complex web of restrictive policies that harm farmers, consumers and the environment.
All New Zealanders should make an effort to support local businesses that have endured the disruption and financial impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of these businesses will be offering products from across the world. Rather than feeling guilty about the emissions involved in transporting these products to New Zealand, Kiwis should be encouraging New Zealand politicians and officials to tell the story of unsubsidised farming in New Zealand.
At COP26 the New Zealand delegation should not be shy in encouraging other countries to remove remaining distorting subsidies and trade barriers, doing so would be good for both people and the planet.