Growing for the long term

There is a growing anxiety over the price of food and our supermarket duopoly is at the centre of concern, writes Sean Connelly.

Sean Connelly
Sean Connelly
Rising costs of living, coupled with the Commerce Commission report that identified how the supermarket sector was not working for consumers, has focused attention on the limited competition in the supermarket sector. The report’s finding that the Foodstuffs and Countdown duopoly was making more than $1 million in profits daily serves to heighten that attention.

Government has responded that it will make it easier for new supermarkets to open, will implement a mandatory code of conduct and take efforts to reduce the control that supermarkets have on wholesale supply.

Consumer NZ has launched a petition calling on the Government to take more urgent action to create conditions for more competition and provide better prices for consumers.

The supermarkets have responded by voluntarily implementing price freezes or temporarily rolling back the prices for a range of everyday products over winter.

But are we prepared to think about food beyond the price and the cost? The cost of food is certainly a concern, rising by 3.1% in the year to March, but are we prepared to value food and agriculture differently as well? There is an important distinction between the cost of food and the value of food.

We have very quickly seized on the fact that the number of supermarkets is the problem, but the reality is that competition in the supermarket sector is but one symptom of a food system that is not working for us or for the environment.

What we need is a complete rethink of the food system. The current attention on food provides opportunities to value food and agriculture in different kinds of ways, to support local growers, to diversify what we produce, the way we produce it, and how we as consumers access food. In doing so, we can also address many of the things that are wrong with the food system — from water, climate, biodiversity, farm livelihoods, rural-urban linkages — the opportunity is now.

But if we limit our imagination for a transformed food system to the arrival of another supermarket chain, or of the Warehouse selling a greater variety of food products, I’m afraid not much will change.

Prices may come down, temporarily, but all the same concerns regarding access to food for consumers (and to food markets for producers) will persist. We will not moderate our intensive, nearly exclusively export-oriented agricultural system to be better aligned with environmental limits. We will not provide opportunities for greater control over the food system. We will not reduce the amount of food waste in the industrialised food system. We will not address the issue of hunger and food poverty. We will not provide greater awareness of where our food comes from or value it in different ways. We will not be better positioned to explicitly encourage more food growing in and around our cities or encourage young people into growing food for their livelihoods.

Addressing the myriad of problems with the food system certainly includes our overdependence on two supermarket chains, but it goes much beyond that. How do we create space for conversations about the food system we want? How do diverse stakeholders from across the food system get together, negotiate and engage in activities to create a new food identity that better reflects the values and outcomes we want from the food system?

There is potential for us to act on food democracy - to develop citizen driven efforts to exert more control over the food system, to resist the hyper-commodification of food and to place food consumption and production in its natural environment context rather than treating it purely as tradeable commodities and ingredients that come in overly packaged bundles of ready-to-heat calories.

There are opportunities to remind ourselves that food is a fundamental human right, that no-one should experience hunger and that this human right is far too important to be simply left to the market.

There are opportunities to demystify food, to make it more visible, to highlight the multitude of things we value in food to better acknowledge the people and skills that produce it, the health and nutrition that we derive from it, and the social and celebratory aspects that result from coming together for a meal.

There are a multitude of opportunities to connect urban infrastructure, greenspace, land use planning and biodiversity goals with food and to strengthen urban and rural linkages. We can demand that food plays a more central role in policy-making at central and local governments.

These are conversations that are well worth having and are long overdue. Hopefully the current concern about food prices provides an opportunity and the space to do so, and we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted by overly simplified, short-term solutions.

Sean Connelly is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago School of Geography.


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