Centralised processing and logistics lead to goods moving around the country in absurd ways.

Log truckLiving in the Wairarapa means I have to drive over the Rimutaka Hill road to get to Wellington from time to time. There is no road tunnel but there is a train tunnel and I take the train whenever I can.

The Rimutaka Hill road (known locally as ‘The Hill’) is fifteen kilometres of steep, narrow, windy road with sheer rock walls on one side and precipitous drops on the other. It is not a great trip for the feint-hearted especially when conditions are bad. Rain, snow, sleet and frosts can make the road treacherous. Regular high winds sometimes reach gale-force and have been strong enough to blow trucks over. Consequently the road gets closed several times a year.

The Hill definitely wasn’t made for the huge trucks that regularly use it. You often turn a tight bend to be confronted by an oncoming truck with its cab encroaching on your side of the road.

The cargo of most of the trucks is unknown but not log-trucks which are quite common because forestry is a big industry in the Wairarapa. Logs for export need to be hauled to Wellington, the closest port. They could be moved by rail though.

Cross-overs

The log trucks come back from Wellington empty with their trailers lifted onto their decks, presumably to save fuel. (Or is it to help them go faster?) What astounds me is that there are often fully laden trucks coming from the Wellington direction. I have witnessed two log-trucks gingerly pass each other carrying what looked to my untrained eye like very similar logs. I cynically wonder if they just take the same logs back and forth. Thinking about it for a moment I realise that this isn’t cynical at all – for all intents and purposes they are the same logs.

Even if the passing logs are very different and are being moved for good reasons, better logistics would mean that the empty trucks coming back could be carrying logs – or something else for that matter. Not that it would happen, but by swapping logs at the top of the hill it could halve the fuel used by each truck and effectively halve the number of trucks on the hill.

These log-trucks are a visible example of the type of cross-over that happens everywhere, all the time. It is daft that South Auckland potatoes go to Dunedin when Canterbury potatoes go to Wellington and Manawatu potatoes go to Auckland. It happens on an international scale too. New Zealand exports over 80% of the oil we produce and then we import three times as much back.

Cross-overs often happen seasonally. There is a new variety of apple called Envy. This season 3,500 cartons of the apples, which are grown in Nelson and Otago, will be sold in the US and Asia. None will be sold here, in fact the apples will not be available in New Zealand for two to three years. Supermarkets here have insisted (because of consumer preference, presumably) that the Envy must be supplied all year round. This means that the apples will be grown under licence in the northern hemisphere and shipped back here in the off-season. All of this is mad enough but I’d like to know what happens in the transition time between seasons. Will there be apples passing in the night.

Double-back

There was a time when you could only get one type of milk – the milk from the farm down the road. Now, no matter where you are, there are several competing brands, each with several types of milk. There’s milk from all over the country (possibly including milk from the farm just down the road) that has been freighted many kilometres by road to be pasteurised, homogenised, ‘trimmed’, mineralised and packaged before doubling-back to where it came from.

Much of this passing-the-parcel happens because competing producers supply competing processors who supply competing supermarket chains using competing freight companies. It is argued that this makes economic sense – centralised processing is efficient and the competition means food can be sold cheaply – but this is false economy. It is an economy based on cheap energy. It is also a system that wrecks local communities and the environment.

Getting smart

When the community and environmental costs are added to escalating energy costs it is obvious that the economics of centralised processing and logistics are unfounded and perverse.

We can get much smarter about all of this.

For starters growers, processors, distributors, wholesalers and retailers could all co-operate much more. An online clearinghouse for goods could be used to co-ordinate logistics and to avoid ‘cross-overs’ and ‘double-backs’. An electronic logistics marketplace could mimimise trucks travelling empty or nearly empty. Produce should be sold and consumed locally with surpluses exported to the nearest city there is a shortage of that product. Processing could be decentralised which would invigorate local communities and help the environment.

We consumers could make better choices about what, where and how we want to buy. We could buy more local, seasonal, fresh produce. We could support local manufacturers, small shop owners and farmers markets. And we could say something when we see blatant wastefulness.