Followers or Leaders

Commentary, Role of Government, Owen McShane

Our leaders have long been enthusiastic promoters of New Zealand as a leader in world opinion.

But they normally refer to political opinion. We may well be trend-setters in giving the vote to women, cradle to grave welfare, and even in rejecting nuclear weapons, but when it comes wealth generation they tend to enthusiastically adopt the opinions of others even, when those opinions are obviously contrary to our national interest.

For example, we were happy to be “Britain’s foodbasket” even while Britain was clearly preparing to enter what is now the Economic Union. Looking to other markets in the Pacific Rim, or looking to diversify beyond commodities, was almost an act of betrayal.

Then we decided to fall in love with the green/organic movement, even though it had its origins in Nazi Germany, and even though it was obviously going to be used as a trade barrier to protect Europe’s rapidly shrinking markets from import competition.

Then we rushed to sign up to Kyoto, rather than join the Asia Pacific Six, even though New Zealand sits squarely in the middle of the Asia-Pacific Rim, and even though the Kyoto protocol was always going to be used to penalize those outside the European bloc.

So when our friends in the UK decided to penalize our produce on the grounds of “Food Miles” we should not have been surprised by their perfidy. However, many of were surprised at how many of our own “leaders” leapt to support the enemy. It took some honest scientists at Lincoln to come to our rescue. We tend to tug at our our economic forelocks because we are not only poorly informed, but are only too willing to let our opinions be shaped by our enemies.

However, we have friends out there who are keen to help, even though New Zealand’s interests are not at the top of their mind.

I have already recommended “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan for a much better fix on the emerging preferences of the booming markets of the Pacific Rim.

Now that Food Miles are being dumped on us, we should all read Saray Murray’ delightful work “Moveable Feasts – the incredible journeys of the things we eat.”

Ms Murray reminds us, through a series of essays on foods such as olive oil, salmon, spices, bananas, curry lunches, sugar, cheese, tea and coffee, that food has been traveling huge distances the first civilizations turned food from a fuel into a source of pleasure.

The vessels used to move these foods have equally rich and fascinating stories. The Romans used amphora to bring olive oil from Spain and North Africa to Italy. The smashed remnants of these clay jars made small mountains of non-recycled rubbish, which are now a treasure trove for archeologists. The well-traveled shards in one dump alone may have moved 1.6 billion US gallons from grove to gourmet. On the other hand the oak barrels, a brilliant solution to the problem of moving grains and liquids by sea, proved to be worth recycling because of their high initial cost and the wonderful flavours they imparted to other produce when “re-used”. When recycling makes sense, people do it.

We are all aware of the role of refrigerated shipping in the founding of New Zealand’s pastoral economy. This invention also promoted the early wave of globalization which allowed the farmers of Australia, Canada, Chile, and Argentina to grow wealthy on pastures’ back.

We tend to accept that the present wave of globalization is due to the electronic revolution which moves money so freely and rapidly round the road, reflecting our fascination with high-technology rather than the mundane.

The container – a simple standardized steel box –has been the true driver of modern globalization. These boxes which could be loaded up at a factory in China and unloaded in a supermarket in New York has linked labour, materials and markets tea and coffee to create huge efficiencies in the total supply chain. In 1956, Malcolm McLean’s curious craft, the “Ideal-X”, carried fifty eight of his containers out of the port of Newark, New Jersey and totally transformed world trade.

His invention may have put thousands of wharfies out of work but it put millions to work in farms, factories and offices around the world.

McClean’s containers were decidedly low tech, but the next generation of “reefers”, used advanced engineering and microprocessing to control temperatures and atmospheres, and global positioning systems to extend the benefits of the container trade to the shipping of perishable foods. The end result is that New Zealanders now ship their kiwi fruit to England. The ill-informed Food-miles campaigners assumed they came by plane and had to remove their feet to eat their words.

We turned to the scientists at Lincoln to mount our counter claims but should not have needed their inputs if our general knowledge of our rural sector matched the income it generates.

New Zealand’s unsung hero should be the American Barbara Pratt. She began her productive life working for McLean’s company Sea-Land where she traveled the world in a laboratory inside a container to see what the contents had to put up as they moved around the world. She was no theoretician – she actually lived in the environment which would soon keep our kiwi fruit and strawberries in good shape on their journeys. She now works for Maersk, the giant Danish shipping company which eventually bought Sea Land.

The world’s biggest container ship (as of now) is the “Emma Maersk”. She carries an astonishing 11,000 containers, and each container can contain about 50,000 bananas – or 500 million in a single load. She is crewed by thirteen sailors – not enough to sail an America’s cup yacht.

The fuel efficiency of such ships is quite remarkable. Ms Murray reports that “the Emma Maersk can move almost 50 miles using the same amount of energy per tonne of cargo that a jumbo jet uses traveling less than a third of a mile.” In case you think a Jumbo is profligate, a 747 flying across the Atlantic uses less fuel per passenger-mile than a TGV inter-city train in France.

Ms Murray tells these histories and enriches them with fascinating tales and equally fascinating facts. She consistently mounts the case for the New Zealand farmer along the way but without hectoring or finger-wagging – she simply lets the facts, the reality and the histories speak for themselves.

She also makes the case for all those farmers in truly poor countries who are beginning to emerge from poverty as modern transport systems allow them to link their produce to the markets of the wealthy who increasingly want genuine “ethnic” food. In the nicest possible way she reminds the so called “ethical consumers” of the devastating impact their half-baked plans to save the planet will have on those whose first concern is to feed their children breakfast. Can a “buy local” campaign really justify the reversion to poverty of millions.

Instead of wallowing in our own ill-informed guilt we should be rushing to their defense – and, not coincidentally, our own.

I hate to think what our children are being taught at school. A first counter-measure would be for every reader of this column to buy two copies of “Moveable Feasts” and donate one copy to the local school and another copy to your MP.

But don’t waste one on Russell Norman – his mind is made up and won’t be altered by the facts.