Food & drink
With people now aware of things like carbon footprints and food miles, consumers are being urged to buy local produce in an effort to do their bit for the environment. But as supermarkets try to outdo each other with their locally-sourced produce, evidence is starting to emerge that shows food miles may not be as bad as we thought. Or rather, calculating the carbon footprint left by a product is not as simple as looking at the distance it has travelled. A study from Lincoln University, New Zealand, has shown that a tonne of lamb raised in Britain will produce 2849kg of carbon dioxide, while the same amount of lamb raised in New Zealand, then transported to Britain, only produces 688kg of the gas. And there are other examples. Lettuces produced in the British winter use more energy than it would take to import them from Spain, and apples imported from New Zealand use less energy than those produced in Britain. The reasons for this are many.
To calculate an accurate measure of energy used, it is important not just to include the energy used in production and the miles travelled, but the amount of fertiliser used, whether or not the farmers use mechanised equipment and the miles travelled by the raw product before it is turned into the finished one. For example better weather in New Zealand means sheep can eat grass for longer and require less feed than in the UK; British meat is often bought by supermarket-specific abattoirs, often far from the farm, meaning it can clock up more food miles than if it was bought by a local abattoir, as it is in New Zealand. The debate that has arisen over this complicated measurement process has led to the British Government stepping in and announcing the development of a standard carbon calculator. Many blame the supermarkets for creating the problem in the first place, by leading customers to believe that they can have produce at any time of year, even if it is out of season. But anti-poverty groups fear that if supermarkets return to stocking only locally produced, in-season food, the result could be devastating to the economies of some developing nations.
Ref: The Sunday Telegraph (UK), 3 June 2007, ‘Greener by Miles’, R. Gray, www.telegraph.co.uk
Search words: food miles, carbon footprint, agriculture, imports, trade, emissions
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Food prices on the rise
Experts predict that food prices are set to rise – for good – as the world faces drought, climate change and an increased demand from countries like China and India. The recent price hike is unusual in that it has affected so many products across the board simultaneously. Experts attribute this to a rise in prices for raw agricultural products, caused by a growth in the bio-fuel industry and drought in Australia (which have led to shortages in supply) and an increase in demand from China. Analysts also attribute the price rise to a global economic recovery – as people become wealthier, they can afford to eat more expensive foods such as milk, meat and eggs. With price inflation occurring worldwide, there is concern that if it continues it may be difficult to feed people in very poor countries. But what does it mean for the West? Already stock analysts have begun to downgrade share prices of food companies that may be affected by the price rise and may not be able to pass it on to consumers. Some companies, such as Nestle, have started to raise prices to recover their newly inflated costs. The Swiss food company has found it was paying more for grains, corn, green coffee and even milk, which is its most-used raw product. Another tactic used in the face of rising prices is to sell less food for the same price. Hershey reduced the size of its trademark chocolate bar when cocoa prices rose in the 1960s, and now cereal makers like Kellogg’s and General Mills are producing smaller boxes. The question is, will consumers notice they’re getting less food, or could this be a solution to the growing obesity problem?
Ref: The Australian (Aus), 25 May 2007, ‘Food prices soar as a richer world fills its plate’, Jenny Wiggins. www.theaustralian.com.au
Search words: food, inflation, agriculture, raw materials, bio-fuel, low-cost
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Naturally non-fat milk
A cow in New Zealand has been discovered to have the ability to produce non-fat milk. The cow, named Marge, is now under scrutiny as scientists try to determine how they might breed a whole herd of similar cows. Skim-milk-producing cows would make it easier to produce low-fat dairy products (demand for which is on the rise), and reduce the waste that occurs as part of the process of skimming the fat from milk. Marge’s special ability was discovered after a biotech subsidiary of New Zealand’s largest dairy, Fonterra, screened milk from 4 million cows around the country. It has been reported that Fonterra has already turned some of Marge’s milk into tasty dairy products. Sounds like the basis of a moovie script to me.
Ref: Business Week (US), 11 June 2007, ‘The skinny on a skim milk cow’, author? www.businessweek.com
Search words: dairy, cows, low-fat
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Food provenance and authenticity
After recent health scares where contaminated products from China ended up in supermarkets, consumers are becoming increasingly picky about where their food is made. And while some companies are finding it impossible to eliminate overseas content from their products, others are cashing in on the latest food crisis. Earlier this year Swiss company DSM Nutritional Products launched a ‘premium’ vitamin C. What made it premium was that it was produced in Scotland, instead of China where 80% of the world’s supply is produced. But the higher price tag put most customers off. After the contamination scare, however, DSM’s Quali-C is selling like hot-cakes, despite being more than twice the price of bulk vitamin C.
Last year specialty dog food producer Freshpet was having a tough time selling its all-natural meat and vegetable pet food. After pets began dying from eating contaminated food, Freshpet got rid of their only overseas ingredient and changed their marketing strategy – and projected 2007 sales have more than tripled. While companies like these have boosted sales by boasting local content, others are cashing in by helping others make their food safer. For most major food companies, getting rid of overseas ingredients is almost impossible – even a simple cereal bar can contain ingredients from China, India and the Philippines. Their only option is to increase efforts to ensure the quality and safety of the ingredients, and that’s good news for those supplying the quality control systems. Companies like Intertek Group PLC are making big bucks providing food manufacturers with the systems they need to test their products. IBM has also found a market for its services, offering a complex tracking system that traces raw ingredients from farm to finished product. Not only does this system increase safety, it means a company can boast premium products such as hormone-free beef or certified organic foods – and premium products mean a premium price tag. In recent years food manufacturers have been feeling the pressure to provide low-cost goods, a quest that has led them to China for cheap ingredients. Now, however, shoppers are moving away from buying products based on price, and are increasingly making decisions based on quality and provenance. Expect this 'industrial provenance' trend to move out of food and drink into other areas of manufacturing such as car parts and even the airline industry.
Ref: Business Week (US), 30 July 2007, ‘Not Made in China’, John Carey, www.businessweek.com
Search words: food, contamination, imports, food safety, authenticity, China, localisation, provenance
Links: Realness, authenticity, provenance, fakes, low-cost, china
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As a product, bottled water is fairly new. But in a short time it has become a part of our lives and culture, going into lunch boxes, gym bags and in the car. The fact that Americans fork out two or three times what they’d pay for fuel, for something they can get for free, makes it a great food phenomenon of our time.In the 1970s, the American water industry was based around sales of big bottles for home and office, until Perrier stepped in. Their plan was to market water as a beverage, like Coke or alcohol. First they linked bottled water to exclusivity, then they connected Perrier to health, and finally associated the brand with celebrity. In 1978 Perrier sold US$20 million of water, the following year it sold US$60 million. Now Americans drink more bottled water than milk, coffee or beer – only soft drinks are more popular. So why are people buying so much of a product they can get in their homes for free? So much of the allure is the bottle itself – we’re paying for image and convenience. We’re also buying the story behind the water – where it comes from, how healthy, clean and pure it is. And it is healthy. When compared to buying a soft drink, water is the much healthier option. But the fact is, in America, bottled water is no better than what comes out of the tap.
Of the top four consumers of bottled water, America is the only country that has reliable tap water. In fact, the top two bottled waters on the American market are nothing more than purified tap water. If you paid for tap water the price of bottled water, monthly water bills would top $9000. Which makes it all the more an indulgence. Within the United States alone, more than 1 billion bottles of water are transported each week, meanwhile 1 billion people around the world have no safe drinking water. That’s to say nothing of the environmental impact that this ‘clean’ beverage has. Fiji Water spends more on transporting water than it does on extracting and bottling the stuff. To meet demands, their state-of-the-art plant runs 24 hours a day, supplied with electricity from three diesel burning generators. San Pellegrino’s trademark glass bottles weigh five times as much as plastic bottles, dramatically increasing energy consumption. The glass bottles are also washed and rinsed in San Pellegrino before filling, using 2 litres of water to prepare a 1 litre bottle. The bubbles are not found naturally in San Pellegrino either– instead they are extracted from volcanic spring waters in Tuscany then transported to the plant. Using plastic bottles does not necessarily make any less impact. Americans used around 50 billion plastic bottles last year, and with a recycling rate of only 23%, this means around 38 billion bottles are ending up in landfills.
Ref: Fast Company (US), July/August 2007, ‘Message in a bottle’, Charles Fishman, www.fastcompany.com
Search words: water, bottled water, plastic, recycling, sustainability
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Animal rights and wrongs
Nearly 25 years ago Tom Regan first published his landmark book, The Case for Animal Rights. The book did little to effect change in general behaviour, for the most part because the timing was off. Now it seems the animal welfare movement is having some impact on the broader community, but this is not due to any sudden realisation among the population that cruelty is wrong. Our newfound concern, it seems, is the result of having little else to worry about – the greatest threat to our health comes in the form of overindulgence. But there are other reasons why we may be coming round to the animal’s point of view – animal activists are finding, as the saying goes, that you attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. The 1980s were a time of grass-roots activism for animal welfare movements, thousands of animals were ‘rescued’ from slaughterhouses and people burned effigies of Colonel Sanders. The 1990s and beyond, however, saw the use of more subtle tactics. While activists still make the most of shocking slaughterhouse footage, more effort is spent organising political campaigns and holding stock in companies like McDonalds. This new, more mature, approach has seen success with the ban of foie gras in California, improved conditions for pregnant pigs and veal calves in Arizona, and an increase in demand for cage-free eggs. But fast food companies and chefs who have introduced new animal welfare policies say that it’s demand from consumers, not pressure from activists, which has led to the change. Recent health scares and a demand for quality food means people are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from.
Source: The Australian Literary Review (Aus), 1 August 2007, ‘Even battery hens get the blues’, Mirko Bagaric, www.theaustralian.com.au/alr ; The New York Times, 25 July 2007, ‘Bringing Moos and Oinks Into the Food Debate’, Kim Severson, www.nytimes.com
Search words: animal welfare, battery hens, activists, fast food
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