Examine the whole supply chain

A former Outram market garden is now a field of maize grown for stock silage.PHOTO: STEPHEN...
A former Outram market garden is now a field of maize grown for stock silage.PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
This lockdown is a drag, there is no dressing it up I’m afraid. But ‘‘it is what it is’’ and we do what we can to make the best of it.

For me, a highlight and a lowlight, in equal measures, was discovering Heartlands’ new kettle fried chip flavour — gin, lemon and thyme. Oh my goodness, it’s like the potato crisp equivalent of the Johnnie Walker Black Label.

Dr Anna Campbell
Dr Anna Campbell
Lockdown also means more screentime. One of my screen binges involved watching a documentary on the history of food. Apparently, prior to the domestication of grasses into cereals, ancient skulls showed lower levels of dental cavities. The hypothesis is that prior to domesticating carbohydrate rich cereals, like maize and rice, humans ate a wider variety of less carbohydrate-rich food which gave them a healthier mouth microbiome and in turn, fewer cavities.

I could continue with a plethora of data around the poor biodiversity of our diet and the correlation with a less biodiverse gut microbiome and associated health problems, but that’s not what I want to address in this column, suffice to say, we are not eating enough variety of fruits, seeds and vegetables in our diets — my love for potato chips does not help matters.

What I have been thinking about in connection to this is how this relates to our food chain. We tend to point the finger at landowners for the lack of diversity of what we grow, without examining the whole food supply chain and how that influences what is available to us.

In the last lockdown I quoted Prof Tim Lang. In the United Kingdom, just eight companies controlled 90% of the food supply, he said in The Guardian in March last year.

If eight companies control the food supply in the UK, with companies like Tesco controlling 30% of that food supply, what controls are in place to support growers and small food businesses? What incentives are there for growers to implement multi-crop farming systems if they get paid the absolute minimum the big supermarket chains can get away with?

The lack of vegetables being grown on the Taieri, compared with 50 years ago, partly tells New Zealand’s story.

The recent report released by the Commerce Commission investigating our supermarket duopoly found that food prices in New Zealand were the sixth-highest in the OECD and the chains’ profits were ‘‘persistently high’’ at 22%-24% return on capital.

This begs the question: who is responsible for the affordability and diversity of what we eat and grow? The return on capital for market gardeners, horticulturalists and livestock farmers ranges from zero (or worse) to 10%, add to that the increasing cost of compliance and challenges with labour, and bingo, being a supermarket owner looks to be a smarter option.

Covid-19 lockdown standards have added extra costs to supermarket owners, which is no picnic I am sure — unfortunately though, it also increases their domination as farmers markets, small vegetable shops and butcheries are not able to open at all, and many are battling for survival.

I am lucky enough to be working on some interesting projects which examine opportunities for land-use change in New Zealand. There are lots of factors to take into account, including financial return for farmers, environmental footprint and social impacts. Another factor is the supply chain — how can profits be distributed more fairly?

Eating healthy fruit and vegetables in New Zealand is expensive and for some families, not affordable at all. To reduce the supermarket power in the UK, Prof Tim Lang suggests capping any one chain’s market share at 15%, to create and allow for greater competition. With the findings from the New Zealand Commerce Commission’s draft report we now have data and a platform from which to drive change.

If the New Zealand Government wants to create impact in regards to access to healthy foods for low-income families and promoting growing multiple land-use in New Zealand, then it needs to drive changes in our supermarket system. ‘‘If competition was more effective, retailers would face stronger pressures to deliver the right prices, quality and range to satisfy a diverse range of consumer preferences,’’ Commerce Commission chairwoman Anna Rawlings said.

It’s definitely time to put energy into developing whole supply chain solutions that look beyond the farmer.

  • Anna Campbell is the co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company and a partner of AbacusBio Ltd, an agri-technology company.

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