Pandemic a timely prompt to improve our food systems

Red meat and dairy have long been considered ‘‘the staples’’ in New Zealand. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Red meat and dairy have long been considered ‘‘the staples’’ in New Zealand. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Because of Covid-19, New Zealanders have encountered food insecurity for the first time. Supermarket shelves have been emptied and restrictions were placed on the quantity and volume of items that could be purchased.

The global pandemic has demonstrated how fragile our food systems have become. In locked-down New Zealand, there were concerns that fruit and vegetable crops would be left to rot.

Certainly overseas, the dual threats of food wastage and food insecurity are playing out as farmers, growers and processors face labour shortages due to Covid-19. Crops are being ploughed into fields, milk is being dumped and animals euthanised.

While this is happening, food banks have bare shelves as the increase in unemployment means more people are struggling to put food on their tables.

So, how could the pandemic change food production? It is likely that the distrust created around food will drive a greater need for transparency in supply chains.

While transparency has been something that I (and many others) have harped on about for years, consumer reaction might just drag some food producers further down that path.

The current crisis may also be a catalyst for countries to invest in systems that will improve their food security. These systems need to differ from the vulnerable industrialised-type agriculture to one that is robust and flexible.

Food production in New Zealand is, by and large, protected from the weaknesses of industrialised farming and this does provide some resiliency. Our primary sector is a robust one, but our dependence on trade for products that may be losing appeal in the market could be exacerbated by the weaknesses of other production systems during a pandemic.

During the past few years, we have seen an extraordinary rise in the production and availability of plant-based proteins, and recently the concept of creating protein from precision fermentation has been touted as a game-changer for global food systems. These systems offer a notion of food sovereignty for nations but the cost of this is the impact on trade for countries such as New Zealand.

With the bulk of scientific evidence pointing to Covid-19 originating in an exotic animal, some commentators have also suggested that a shift away from animal protein is now needed to stop all such further pandemics.

However, zoonotic diseases (such as Covid-19), which can spread from animals to humans, are not new. It is estimated that six out of every 10 known infectious diseases can come from animals. And this is also the case for new diseases, where three out of four come from animals.

Zoonotic diseases are not confined to when we eat an animal. For example, petting zoos in the US have long been associated with E. coli infections. To have an impact, switching diets to non-animal proteins would have to be done by everyone and that is just plain unrealistic.

A more likely future scenario is that food insecurity will continue to increase in both developed and developing nations as producers struggle to plant, harvest and sell products.

New Zealand’s horticulture sector has already rung alarm bells over the acquisition of land, fertile and good for food production, by developers. The fear being that NZ may find itself in a position of food insecurity — where our ability to produce enough good food, sustainably, fails.

This is becoming increasingly important as we switch to more plant-based meals and, as many countries have discovered during Covid-19, when borders and usual supply chains falter.

One of the greatest risks of food security is growth in demand for food that we are not increasing production in. Red meat and dairy have long been regarded as "the staples" for New Zealand.

While I don’t dispute that these will continue to make up a large part of our diet, as our diet preferences shift, we need to ensure that production moves with it. This is nothing short of stating the obvious and there is nothing like a crisis to speed up the need for change.

It is not too early to look at how we have responded to the crisis and to ask how we can improve our food system. Systematic review of supply chains is only part of the equation; we know, for instance, that (prior to Covid-19) considerable food wastage occurred.

According to action group LoveFoodHateWaste, we throw away around $1.17 billion worth of food a year in New Zealand. A robust and future-proof food system cannot afford to overlook the role that the consumer plays: specifically, in the food that we demand, the way in which we prepare it, and the ways in which we waste it.

With that logic, it would seem timely to now invest in food education — because "food literacy" is the crucial ingredient in the fight for fairer food systems.

 - Central Otago-based Helen Darling has a PhD in public health and has been working in food systems for some time. She is co-founder of FoodTruths.org, a New Zealand based start-up that is reimagining food systems for the betterment of people and planet.

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