Alarm erupts over climate tax on trade [+audio]

By Brian Fallow, Anne Beston

Government ministers leaped to the defence of New Zealand's long-distance exports yesterday after kiwifruit was named as a global-warming offender in a climate change study making waves around the world.

The report, by former World Bank economist Sir Nicholas Stern and commissioned by the British Government, cited the kiwifruit trade as a contributor to environmental damage.

It estimated that flying 1kg of kiwifruit from New Zealand to Europe causes 5kg of carbon to be discharged into the atmosphere.

>> Summary of the report

If internationally accepted, primary exports from this country would be rated high in "food miles", and possibly taxed for the environmental cost of carbon emissions for every mile agricultural and horticultural goods travel.

Zespri yesterday expressed surprise at the Stern Report's findings because the fruit all goes to Britain by ship.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said it was a worry for New Zealand that the concept of food miles had gained traction with Europe's Green politicians.

"I've been concerned for some time that the next round of protectionism New Zealand will face will be in the form of environmental barriers, such as the notion of food miles," she said.

The issue was raised by Trade Minister Phil Goff yesterday with his visiting British counterpart, Ian McCartney.

Mr McCartney is understood to have said the British Government would be unlikely to agree to a system of food miles.

'Smear campaign'

Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton labelled the suggestion that kiwifruit exports were a heavy burden on the world's climate a "smear campaign" designed to blacken the reputation of New Zealand food.

The kiwifruit industry was one of the most efficient horticultural sectors in the world and was therefore a threat to "inefficient Northern Hemisphere producers".

"If European producers want to expose the real costs to the environment of food production, then they are on a hiding to nothing," he said.

"The best thing for the environment would be to cut back on inefficient farming practices and grow produce which does not require artificial inputs such as gas-fired hothouses or subsidies for farmers."

Zespri global marketing manager Peter Luxton said all production processes should be considered when estimating the environmental cost of a particular crop and focusing on transport alone was misleading.

Mr Goff said calls by former British Cabinet minister Stephen Byers for a tax based on food miles was "a thinly disguised appeal for self-interested protectionism".

Mr Anderton pointed to a Lincoln University report this year which showed products such as onions, lamb and apples were more efficiently produced in New Zealand even after transport was taken into account.

The study found energy and carbon dioxide emissions used in producing New Zealand lamb were around a quarter of those required to produce British lamb.

And New Zealand apples and onions were more energy-efficient than those grown in Britain.

Sir Nicholas's full report was released overnight New Zealand time.

Incentive and punishment

Helen Clark said today political parties needed to agree on an incentive and punishment approach.

"If we compare this issue, the great challenge of our times, with going back 20 years to the nuclear free issue, people could see New Zealand needed to act for the sake of the planet," she said on National Radio.

"I think this is one of those issues. So the issue will be, can a range of parties raise above petty political considerations to say 'yes let's try and work on this together'?"

However, National leader Don Brash was not keen for New Zealand to go out on a limb. National previously opposed New Zealand signing up to the Kyoto Protocol.

"We objected to New Zealand launching into this ahead of our major trading partners -- Australia hasn't signed up to the Kyoto protocol, the US hasn't signed up to it," he said.

"I think if it's an international effort where everybody is pulling their weight then clearly New Zealand would have to be part of it."

National would consider the report seriously.

- Additional reporting by NZPA

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