What started as a well-intentioned suggestion by a British reporter to help consumers reduce their so-called "food miles," a measure of a product's greenhouse gas emissions based on the distance traveled to the store shelf, has turned into an international furor. The journalist's suggestion left New Zealand wine producers and politicians up in arms.
Anna Shepard, who writes the green-friendly wine blog the Eco-Worrier for U.K. newspaper the Times, recently published bullet points for Britons concerned about the environmental impact of the products they buy. Among Shepard's advice: "Buy a bottle of French wine instead of a New Zealand vintage." Her reasoning was that transporting wines from France results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions because of the closer proximity.
Of course, that didn't sit well with New Zealand's wine producers, many of whom participate in a sustainable-agriculture initiative designed to reduce the environmental impact of winegrowing. Even New Zealand's Trade Minister, Phil Goff, weighed in on the issue.
"Our basic concern with the food-miles issue is that it is looking at only one aspect of the energy budget for production, marketing and sales of a product," said Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, a group that represents New Zealand's grape growers and wine producers. "Focusing just on transport, as food miles does, is not the way forward."
Nonetheless, Shepard's blog entry didn't come out of left field. Consumer demand for carbon-footprint information on products is growing in Britain, according to the U.K. Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra). Defra is currently working on creating a unified system of measuring the food miles of various products, including wine, in case the government intends to someday require that information on labels.
"It is very difficult to develop such a system, to track a product's individual carbon miles from cradle to grave, from conception to disposal," said Penny Fox, a spokesperson for Defra. "For a product such as wine, [the system] would need to factor the energy to harvest the grape, to making the wine, to bottling it--everything until the bottle is emptied and finally recycled."
According to Gareth Edwards Jones, a professor of agriculture and land-use studies at the University of Wales and a leading researcher on food miles, wine shipped by sea has a much smaller carbon footprint when compared to trucks and, especially, airplanes.
Dave Pearce, winemaker for Marlborough producer Grove Mill, which is a carbon-neutral winery, said that his winery factors the amount of carbon emitted from a ship carrying a container of wine to London from Dunedin, a large port city on New Zealand's South Island. In terms of carbon emissions, shipping by boat, Pearce said, is "less than trucking a container of wine from Italy to London, and half the amount I would generate if I fly to London to do a presentation [on global warming]."
Jones believes there is a simple--although somewhat undesirable--solution to the issue. "If you really wanted to save the planet, the answer is easy: Don't drink any wine," Jones said. "But, given that many people would rather drink wine … then the conscience-minimizing strategy would be to drink wine that had consumed minimum energy in storage, packaging and transport."
An alternative, for example, would be to ship wine in a large tanker, and bottle it once it reaches the U.K. As the theory goes, wine transported without the weight of bottles and cases would reduce the amount of ships on the seas, thereby lowering the amount of exhaust expelled into the atmosphere. However, New Zealand producers wonder if the idea is even viable, much less environmentally friendlier.
"Shipping in bulk would likely reduce the carbon footprint of transport, [but] the issue is not that simple. For example, in New Zealand, over 60 percent of electricity is generated from renewables," said Gregan. "But in a place such as the U.K., where bottling may occur, the number is only about 5 percent, so the carbon cost of packaging in all probability is higher offshore than in New Zealand."
Despite the likely best intentions of Shepard (who declined to be interviewed for this story), U.K. consumers appear to have more interest in the wine than calculating the potential environmental damage of transporting it. "In relation to sales, we are not seeing any reduction here in the U.K., and currently we are increasing market share. The latest exports to the U.K. have increased by 23 percent on the previous year," said Warren Adamson, spokesman for New Zealand Wine Events, which arranges public tastings throughout Britain.