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Some commentators say it’s too early for food producers in New Zealand, to say, "I told you so".
The commentators are right, we are under lockdown and feeling raw and vulnerable. As a community we have reached out to our health workers and thanked them, the odd scientist is even getting recognised — these are strange times indeed.
For many, it’s time to eat humble pie and thank our farmers as well. Food as the mainstay of our economy (and our own food security) will prevail, as it did in the revival from the global financial crisis. Farmers don’t gloat, it’s not in their nature, they will quietly nod in acknowledgement and get on with things — as they have always done.
This crisis has highlighted weaknesses in our food supply system and the more I read, the more I am convinced that it is the food system which requires the greatest scrutiny, rather than farmers themselves — perhaps we might shift our focus.
Prof Tim Lang, the UK’s leading expert on food policy, has written a book, Feeding Britain, where he states that, "although not officially at war, the UK is, de facto, facing a wartime scale of food challenge."
He goes on to say that consumers in the UK have access to a greater range of ingredients at better prices than at any time in human history, and yet "all of that masks a bitter reality: we have a massively fragile just-in-time supply chain which could easily collapse; a depleted agriculture sector which produces only about 50% of the food we actually eat, leaving us at the mercies of the international markets; and production methods which are damaging to the environment and human health."(https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/22/tim-lang-interview-p...)
Sounds alarming for the UK right? But, we’re OK sheltered on our islands at the bottom of the world — we produce more food than we can eat. Yes, that’s true, but despite having tried many times, I am unable to obtain data on the percentage of food in our supermarkets which we import, which I believe is high. We produce a lot of milk and meat in New Zealand, but comparatively, not much in the way of vegetables, beans or manufactured/processed foods.
Prof Lang goes on to say something very interesting "At the heart of this crisis is a British willingness to let a small number of corporations dominate food retailing: just eight companies control 90% of our food supply." He’s talking about the supermarkets and their buying power over producers.
It is sad — but understandable — that in this lockdown we are unable to buy directly from farmers via farmers markets or vegetable sellers or butcheries. The New Zealand Government is looking into the duopoly that is our supermarket system and how they are behaving during this crisis and it is also something we should be examining outside of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is a very interesting report published by Coriolis (in late 2019), commissioned by MBIE and NZTE, where they ask the question "Is this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning? Finding the future of the New Zealand food industry."
The report is worth a read, they examine the intensity of our land-use — remember intensity doesn’t always mean more cows, it may mean more vegetables, more horticulture — asking the question what is the best use of different land types?
The report also asks — are we are missing out on food manufacturing jobs by having our major food companies predominantly selling ingredients to others (offshore).
These are important topics to examine, debate and understand, not just in terms of food value and jobs, but also in the interests of our national food security — our "physiological needs".
New Zealanders culturally cringe at the fact that we are an agricultural nation — this is noticeable by how the media portrays food production, how we educate our children, how saddled our farmers have become with bureaucracy and how our research and development spend has moved away from primary production.
The Covid-19 crisis will be a chance for our country to re-position. How should we use our land? What do we want to grow? How do we want to support our growers? How do we want to manufacture more of what we grow? And how should we sell what we grow? This is a collaborative opportunity for growers, private businesses and government — the cringe should be banished.
To finish — a virtual hug from me to all my readers. Kia kaha.
- Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.