Yearly, the UK produces enough lamb to meet the demands of its consumers. But much of this is exported while imported New Zealand lamb enjoys a prime position in the supermarkets. This is often at prices that shoppers find more attractive. In 2012, for example, the UK exported 94,700 tonnes of lamb and imported 86,100 tonnes.
The reasons for this seemingly gross imbalance are complex. They bridge issues such as economy, seasonality, and market demand. History also has a part to play; the UK has been importing New Zealand lamb since 1870.
Following reports in the late noughties and early twenty-tens, a body of research concluded the most sustainable lamb was from New Zealand. Here, we ask, is this research still valid? And which lamb is the better choice for savvy UK consumers?
From Far-Flung Pastures to UK Tables
Despite hailing from the other side of the world, New Zealand lamb is popular in the UK. Owing to factors such as higher yields, lower production costs, lower disease rates, and a favourable exchange rate, the imported meat has traditionally been cheaper than homegrown options.
New Zealand’s climate means that sheep can be produced all year. The methods of farming made possible by this climate mean that production costs are low.
While contemporary media coverage has showcased increasing hostility to lamb imports, it is important to understand that this is in no way a new phenomenon. In fact, the meat industry in once-colonised NZ was built around a need to serve the British market.
The first shipment of canned meats left from NZ to the UK in 1870 and frozen carcasses quickly followed, arriving in 1882. The Times called it “a triumph”.
During this period, Britain was experiencing rapid industrialisation. More and more farm workers headed to metropolitan centres, leaving local farms understaffed. This meant that imported lamb and meats were key to easing food shortages in the cities.
Because of this history and close links between the nations, imported goods from NZ had preferential access to the UK market for much of the 20th century.
A combination of favourable prices for UK shoppers and the history of trade between the two nations has kept New Zealand lamb on British shelves for the past 137 years.
But is New Zealand Lamb Really More Sustainable?
In 2007, Lincoln University in New Zealand, published a food miles and carbon footprint study. It concluded that lamb from NZ was more sustainable than lamb produced in the UK because it has a lower carbon footprint.
This is despite the vast distance it must travel to get to the UK. In the study, which focused on “key New Zealand products”, energy and carbon emissions from “production to plate” were calculated and compared to the next best source available to the UK market.
The research showed that for each tonne of NZ lamb produced and imported, 688kg of CO2 is emitted. When compared to the 2849.1kg of CO2 emitted in UK production, the most sustainable lamb would appear to be that from NZ.
British farmers were understandably vexed and local researchers and farmers raised doubts over the findings. But many conceded that sheep production was more efficient in NZ than in the UK.
It’s Not Just the Food Miles
Several UK academics backed up the research. Prof Gareth Edwards-Jones from the agriculture department at Bangor University in Wales, agreed with the findings. “They have slightly better weather. This means their grass can grow for longer and they don’t have to give their sheep as much feed as they do in the UK.”
He also pointed out that many “in-Britain” food miles are accumulated because each UK supermarket has its own abattoir.
Critics of the study have been quick to point out that the Research Centre that produced the findings appear to have close links to key industry players such as DairyNZ, and Beef & Lamb New Zealand.
But is this so unusual given that Lincoln is primarily an agricultural institution? Similar links can be found between agriculture departments and industry giants across the world.
It would be careless to imply that the research in the study is flawed, or that the statistics are biased. But the issue of ‘food miles’ seems to be informed by a veritable wealth of data and statistics. These include emissions, carbon footprints, energy, and transport – much of it coming from those with a vested interest.
A Smarter Way to Be Sustainable
Compounding some of the questionable aspects of the discourse surrounding food miles, is the growing awareness that perhaps food miles are not a good way to measure sustainability at all.
Food miles are simplistic as they do not account for production emissions and total energy used. Instead, they only focus on the distance food travels. As the lead researcher of the Lincoln study notes, they are “misleading”.
An obvious example of this is that ocean shipping has low emissions compared to air freighting. Yet the miles are counted as the same.
As the debate over food miles has intensified in both the academic and popular domains, common assumptions have come under fire. There is an oft-cited figure claiming that the average item of food travels 1,500 miles before reaching its destination plate.
But as recent research has upped the ante when it comes to sustainable options, this figure has been shown to be grounded in little objective study.
Coming years will arguably show that food miles are on the out as a way to meaningfully measure sustainability.
As food critic and Observer columnist, Jay Rayner, notes in his book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, it is in no way certain that foods produced in one country and shipped to another are automatically less sustainable than local products.
The Future for British Lamb
Amid all the debates, some companies are making a commitment to local lamb. Aldi announced in 2016 that it will stock only UK lamb. This has happened against a backdrop of lamb imports from NZ falling, with 2013 showing particularly troublesome figures for the industry in NZ.
But Aldi may struggle to provide enough local lamb to its consumers if the fears held by Welsh farmers turn out to be true. Post-Brexit, NZ and the UK are planning a free trade deal which could damage the welsh meat industry significantly.
Couple this with uncertainty over future EU trade agreements and it puts the local industry into a state of concern. The rural affairs secretary has warned that “if we have this huge influx of New Zealand lamb it will absolutely destroy the Welsh lamb industry.”
So, Which Is the More Sustainable Lamb?
If we are to trust the Lincoln University figures, and there is certainly a lot of merit to them, then NZ lamb is more environmentally friendly. The research has stood the test of time and has also shown that food miles are not the best way to measure sustainability.
But environmental concerns aside for a moment, what of supporting local businesses? Demand will always drive production.
It stands to reason that if UK consumers choose local over imported then local farmers will strive to meet demand. As welsh farmers have noted, given the incentives and the forward notice, they too can produce lamb all year around.
Yet the UK climate is not predisposed toward a year-long spring-time. So emissions and environmental production tolls would be high. There are pros and cons to each option, and deciding which impacts are most important is inevitably subjective.
Perhaps as we head into the spring, consideration of the effects of eating outside of what’s local and seasonally available is called for. Arguably the best option from an environmental perspective is to eat local produce which is in season, always.
As for this New Zealander, I’ll certainly be weighing up my choices when it comes to locally-reared meat or a leg of (admittedly-delicious) NZ lamb this year.