Growing concern

Karitane organic gardener Andy Barratt with one of his hazelnut trees. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Karitane organic gardener Andy Barratt with one of his hazelnut trees. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Mr Barratt is one of the organisers of today's Local Food Forum. Photo by Andy Barratt.
Mr Barratt is one of the organisers of today's Local Food Forum. Photo by Andy Barratt.
Jon Foote helps out at a permaculture garden installation in Dunedin earlier this year. Photo by...
Jon Foote helps out at a permaculture garden installation in Dunedin earlier this year. Photo by Gillian Vine.
Otago Farmers Market Trust chairman Rodger Whitson. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Otago Farmers Market Trust chairman Rodger Whitson. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Jinty MacTavish. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Jinty MacTavish. Photo by Peter McIntosh.

There are good reasons for finding your food closer to where you live, say those behind an initiative in the city today. Tom McKinlay reports.
Food prices are heading up, apparently.

Well, no surprise there. But then again, perhaps there is.

That particular forecast was made recently by the chief executive of the Tesco chain of supermarkets in the UK, Philip Clarke.

''Because of growing global demand, it is going to change. There's going to be more demand and more pressure.

"Over the long term I think food prices'' and the proportion of income spent on food ''may well be going up,'' The Observer newspaper reported Mr Clarke saying.

Supermarkets, of course, advertise overwhelmingly on their ability to keep prices down.

Curiously, a poll of Britons at about the same time, found most would be prepared to pay more for their vegetables.

There was a caveat. It was on the basis ''they knew the extra was going to farmers rather than to supermarket shareholders''.

The Tesco chief's comments and the poll result highlight a couple of international food trends.

The first is an examination of whether our mainstream food production and distribution systems can feed us into the future. The second is a rising tide of consumers asking whether we want them to.

Big food has been attracting criticism for its long fuel-intensive supply lines, food scares (including the appearance of horsemeat on Tesco shelves), the erosion of nutritional values and a decline in food diversity.

Now its trump card, price, is under pressure.

In the meantime, consumers have been reconnecting with the producers of their food, and showing they are prepared to pony up for the privilege. In these parts, the Otago Farmers Market is the shining example.

These and many other issues to do with food are the focus of a full-day forum in Dunedin today, which is expected to bring together people who eat food, who grow food, home gardeners who do both, community garden supporters, community food forest enthusiasts, farmers market vendors, food processors, social agencies and others.

It is a broad cross-section of society and organisers anticipate they will bring a wide range of perspectives to Dunedin's second Local Food Forum.

The first was held in November and focused on an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the city's food network.

The second - which is open to all - intends to focus on actions, what can be done to help local food rise to the challenge.

That is certainly the hope of Karitane organic food grower Andy Barratt, one of the organisers of the forum.

Mr Barratt says a desire to make Dunedin more resilient in terms of its food production, should natural disasters or man-made ones come calling, are among the motivations for the forum.

Financial crisis, climate change and its accompanying extremes of weather, and a sharpening scarcity of fossil-fuel resources loom as the man-made challenges.

But there is more to it than this backdrop of unease. The food forum will also look to leverage off burgeoning activity, whether in home or community gardens, and the trend towards consumers hunting out local produce.

Those are welcome developments, Mr Barratt says, and he would like to see them build.

It is also important that commercial fresh produce picks up in order to capitalise on consumers' rediscovery of local, he says.

''The areas which I think are probably not growing are perhaps some of the more conventional food production around the city,'' Mr Barratt says.

For vegetable growers it is getting more difficult to make money from tilling the soil.

It is a point underlined by another of the forum organisers, Mark Dickson, who with his partner Rayna, runs the Taste Nature food store in High St, Dunedin, which specialises in local produce.

Mr Dickson is also a grower, concentrating on winter crops, but is concerned his might be a vanishing breed.

His land on the valley floor at Waitati extends to a couple of acres but he says there used to be more area there under cultivation, perhaps another 10 or 12 acres. Now it is just pasture.

''You look at the Taieri and Outram and what used to be grown out there and what is grown out there now. We are yards apart.''

More young blood is required, Mr Dickson says. But with land prices being what they are, it is not easy to get started.

Otago Farmers Market chairman Rodger Whitson confirms the trend, describing local horticulture as struggling, with fewer, older growers and ''nobody is coming to replace them''.

''In 10 years, I wouldn't like to think how many producers there might be,'' he says.

He too says land prices are an issue, noting some good dirt on the Taieri is now feeding dairy cows.

There is cheaper land elsewhere around the city's fringes, he says, ''but vegies grow well in good soil and that is limited''.

The farmers market has been critical in providing an outlet for those still growing, he says.

But even there the trends are not all positive.

''We lost one vege grower there a while back, Sam Young from Outram retired. And that has not been replaced.''

Mr Barratt says he hopes the forum might begin to address the situation, perhaps by looking at ways for growers to share costs.

Beyond the issue of growing more food, there is the matter of its equitable distribution.

Mr Barratt sees room for improvement.

''Local food is getting to be very much about issues of social equity, helping the poorer sector of society have access to good healthy food.''

Some food banks are incorporating more fresh food in their operations by linking with producers, he says, while other fresh produce is donated by home and community gardeners.

In that way, local food production shifts from being purely about the individual meeting their own needs, to a system that can benefit the community as a whole, Mr Barratt says.

''This is all about the idea of having a society where people engage far more in all kinds of activities with one another.

"Whether they be economic or more welfare kinds of things - rather than just engage in the impersonal kind of relations that we are used to through supermarkets and that kind of thing.''

Mr Barratt is aware that might sound a little rose-tinted.

''The important thing about it is not to make it sound too utopian,'' he hastens to add.

The forum ''is not a green hugfest''.

Some attendees will be the growers and businesspeople who make their living from food and are principally motivated to ensure Dunedin is as economically vibrant as it can be, he says.

There's a good case for some emphasis there, he says.

''It is a very good way of keeping economic activity up within your own community.''

Mr Dickson says he supports international trade in the foods that can not be produced here but would like to see what is produced in Dunedin valued more highly and more value added to it.

''I think we need to value what we do here first and foremost and the food we produce and the community it creates and also the employment it creates as well.''

Discussion at the forum about creating more food-based economic activity in the city is likely to include an examination of the Dunedin City Council's role as a facilitator, smoothing the way for smaller producers to add value to what they do.

''You look at the Taieri and there is a lot of lifestyle blocks gone on land there that perhaps could have been put to better use in the future,'' Mr Dickson says.

''So perhaps some direction or leadership from the council with regards to zoning and things like that.''

Cr Jinty MacTavish is among those at the council lending support to the forum.

She says the council's Community Resilience Forum has looked at the issue, and in particular how the council's spatial plan caters for food production.

''A lot of what we have looked at in the last six months as a Community Resilience Forum has been the global context for these sorts of discussions and what other cities are doing.

"There seems to be this burgeoning interest at a global level in local food, or at least being aware of food systems in the city,'' Ms MacTavish says.

Dunedin has a large hinterland, and a discussion about local food has the ability to unite town and country. Something the farmers market has already demonstrated, she says.

''It is delivering multiple benefits for our city.''

It was now worthwhile to look at how the city could leverage off that.

Another of the men behind the forum, permaculture practitioner Jon Foote, has also had an involvement with the Community Resilience Forum, taking an idea for a local food website to the council-sponsored body.

His idea is now being investigated by council staff.

''That is really just about creating a central point for people to get information or to connect and network. It is about driving people to local purchasing,'' he says.

Not everyone wants to grow their own vegetables but if they buy local from local farmers, that will serve the city well in the future, Mr Foote says.

''We need to buy from them now so that they are there when we need them.

''I always say an integrated community food system does not live by one facet.

"It really needs all of these different options: farmers markets, people growing their own vegetables, community gardens, but primarily we do need those primary producers, those farmers.''

Mr Foote has seen the need for a bit of resilience at first hand.

Following the Christchurch earthquakes he spent time working with sustainability-focused group Project Lyttelton.

''When they got hit by the earthquake they had a lot of issues with distribution of food and getting food to people,'' he says.

Food systems struggled with the disruption of the big shakes.

Mr Barratt says the long distribution chains that feed our supermarkets are problematic.

Food can be transported from all points of the South to Christchurch-based warehouses, before being trucked south again to supermarkets close to where it was grown.

It is a formula confirmed, with qualifications, by Foodstuffs South Island general manager retail Alan Malcolmson.

''Foodstuffs' unique structure means that each individual store owner-operator of New World and Pak'n Save in Dunedin, where appropriate, can source food directly from approved local suppliers,'' he said in a statement.

''However, the majority of products in Dunedin stores is sourced from central distribution centres, which is a growing component of the supply chain.''

Mr Barratt says such systems work brilliantly according to their own logic.

''Currently it is economically viable to do that, given the cost of fuel.''

But as fuel costs climb, the sums might no longer look as good. And people in Dunedin are already familiar with shortages of certain foodstuffs during extreme weather events, as well as following the Christchurch earthquakes, he says.

This latter point is disputed by Mr Malcolmson: ''In the case of a weather event or a natural disaster affecting supply to the lower South Island, Foodstuffs has an excellent history of ensuring we always find alternative routes for transportation to ensure that there is always an ongoing supply to our stores in the southern regions''.

Mr Whitson says supermarkets' buying habits do not tend to favour smaller local producers.

Rather they control where food is grown, what is grown and who grows it by looking to buy bulk lines at a price that suits them.

Critical examination of the supermarket model does not end there.

Writing recently in The Guardian, Tobias Jones said Britons' main problem was that they had ''become so hooked on cheap food that we ignore the hidden costs: the poisoning of our land by pesticides; the consequent collapse of bee colonies, thus declining rates of pollination''.

''It's easy to make supermarkets the pantomime villains in all this,'' he said.

''But in a way, supermarkets are only giving us what we want, and some of us need: food that's cheap as chips. Why else would every supermarket advert be about price?''I

n a recent seminar, University of Otago geography department lecturer Sean Connelly took up the point, in the context of efforts in two Canadian cities to nurture local food systems.

''Those involved were not just trying to scale up what was going on locally, but also to have an impact on what was going on in the global food system as well,'' he says.

Results were mixed.

Mr Barratt says the forum is not about replacing the supermarket model. That's not realistic.

''I don't think any of us are idealistic about local food ... becoming something that displaces supermarkets,'' he says.

''I think if we have built the network of connections and have more people doing various things and developing various skills, if and when - and I certainly think when - this series of crises come upon us, we will have something that will develop rather more quickly to fill the void.''

Indeed, it is something everyone can contribute to, he says.

''Everybody can do something today about local food if they want to.''

At the entry level, that might be planting some radishes in a window box.

The forum
Local Food Forum 2
Today, 10am-4pm
Dunningham Suite, Dunedin City Library


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