Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: How globalisation affects food choices

The Country

3 May 2022

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth

Imported pork products do not necessarily meet our welfare requirements

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's Newton's third law of motion and has implications that are wider than physics.

In this era of globalisation, every action has a reaction with potential worldwide implications.

Shortages in sunflower and canola oil are increasing due to adverse weather and the war in Ukraine.

In response, Indonesia has stopped exporting all forms of palm oil, in order to protect its own users from potential shortages and price hikes.

Reaction to the news has pointed to the global dominance of Indonesia as a supplier of palm oil (58 per cent of the market) and to the ubiquitous use of palm oil in products from shampoo through to cooking oil and biofuel.

Indonesia's ban is predicted to escalate food prices everywhere.

Absent in the news so far is any comment from activists concerned about deforestation and the plight of orangutans. All biodiversity is under threat when human activities expand, but orangutans usually feature in palm oil discussions.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth

Banning oil exports might have been considered a good move in terms of protection and worth promoting. But perhaps the reality of ever-increasing food prices has hit home.

And perhaps some Cost Benefit Analysis has been done.

In the UK, a report by consultancy firm Levercliff indicated that 71 per cent of consumers are now choosing value over sustainability. In October last year, the figure was 58 per cent.

People are increasingly prioritising their own financial viability and mental wellbeing over sustainability – "it's not that they don't care, but they have more pressing needs".

Translate this to the pork industry in New Zealand, and the implications are not good.

Activists have been lobbying for increased animal welfare standards. This is despite the fact that New Zealand's farm animal welfare has been assessed as higher than that of our trading partners by Animal Protection International.

NZPork's website says over 60 per cent of pork products consumed in New Zealand are imported and approximately 85 per cent of cured products like bacon and ham.

Why? Because imported pork is cheaper. The personal Cost Benefit Analysis points to consumers seeking value in New Zealand as well as the rest of the world.

For the pig farmers of New Zealand, discussion of ever-higher welfare standards, as featured in the media last week, is difficult to absorb.

They know that consumers will make decisions based on their wallets and buy the "value" product. This is unlikely to be the one produced in New Zealand to meet the welfare standards requested by New Zealanders when the imported products are cheaper, at least in part because they use practices illegal here.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is in the process of consultation on changes to the current welfare regulations.

There is a CBA to be done: increased freedom for the sow but increased piglet death.

Sows are large, piglets are small. The development of farrowing crates has increased piglet survival and New Zealand has regulations on the size of farrowing crates and short time of use.

The third component in the CBA is personal finance.

Egg production has been through a similar consultation process and change in welfare regulations, but in contrast to pork products, whole eggs are not able to be imported to replace domestically produced eggs. Consumers have to pay the price of New Zealand produced eggs.

But for pork products, there are choices – and the imported products which do not necessarily meet our welfare requirements.

The components of the CBA make a good debate.

In contrast, a CBA for palm oil, involving only sustainably managed plantations, should be easy.

The point must be to prevent further expansion of agricultural land by managing current land appropriately. The yield of palm oil per hectare is 3.3 tonnes.

That for canola or sunflower is 0.7 t/ha. Soybean oil yield is only 0.4 t/ha. The International Union for Conservation of Nature points out that proposing a shift from palm oil to other oil crops could lead to further biodiversity loss in areas where other oils can be produced.

This is not a "let them eat cake" (if there is no palm oil use something else) moment; it is the time for some sense. How do we assist the palm oil industry to do even better from the land already under plantation?

The IUCN has suggestions for producing and importing countries.

Oil-producing countries need to ensure that the production of palm oil abides by national laws and international conventions aimed at avoiding negative environmental impacts.

Importing countries should limit the use of palm oil in biofuels and ensure that deforestation policies apply to all vegetable oils, not just palm oil.

This is a form of "equivalence" and is what the pork industry is suggesting in animal welfare for imported products.

Equivalence fits with trade negotiations with other countries taking New Zealand products – and Animal Protection International rates New Zealand farm animal welfare above most other countries.

The CBA involves animals in all these cases and applies to all agricultural production.

Making compromises requires an understanding of action and reaction – the implications are global.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com