Why we cannot afford to take our food supply for granted

For most of us, access to quality food is a given. After all, we live in a country which exports 90% of its agricultural products, a proportion unheard of elsewhere.

We think of ourselves as big exporters but we're actually well down the list in terms of total food exported - the top four countries by volume are the United States, Germany, United Kingdom and China.

In my work, all my focus is on the food we export, so I don't often think about what and how much food we actually import. It's more than you might think, although I haven't been able to find any hard statistics.

As an example, in 2015, the Consumer Organisation published that every year we import $38million of frozen fruit and vegetables, and only one company, Talleys, sold only New Zealand product. Even Watties, an iconic New Zealand brand does a bit of mixing and matching, according to produce availability.

Where food comes from is all a bit hard to tell when you are reading the back of packages, but does it really matter?

Well, it might and here is one reason why. I have heard varying statistics about the level of soil pollution in China. Official statistics say close to 20% of China's soil is contaminated with heavy metals, such as cadmium, and I've heard unofficial statistics which put that figure much higher.

Does this mean we should insist on ''Country of Origin'' labelling? It's a pretty crude mechanism for assessing food safety or quality. Who is to say the food we produce in New Zealand is safer than that produced elsewhere?

There are also reasons for not making country of origin labelling mandatory associated with trade regulations - if all is free and equal, then supposedly compulsory labelling flies in the face of that.

In saying that, it is my belief that a consumer has a right to know where and how their food has been grown and manufactured and to choose accordingly. Deliberately ambiguous labelling should be called out, but this is where it gets complex, because not many foods are simple anymore.

Shaun Kennedy, from the University of Minnesota's Food Protection and Defense Institute mapped the origin of more than 100 ingredients which make up a McDonald's Big Mac. That's right, more than 100 ingredients. I was pretty mortified comparing that to the minimal ingredient list of my humble home-made burgers, until I realised adding store-bought tomato sauce to my burger completely blew my ingredient list out.

How many meals do we eat where we can say all the ingredients are truly locally sourced? Not many and that's when not only food safety comes to the fore, but food security as well.

How do we know we will always have access to what we import now?

Right now, the United States is causing mayhem in food trade and supply chains. ''Protecting borders'' from imported food might seem great for local farmers, until countries like China, who buy your export products decide they won't anymore. The China and US relationship is one ball to juggle; imagine the mayhem Brexit will cause.

As an example, Ireland exports a significant amount of its food products to the United Kingdom under the European tariff-free arrangement. A no-deal Brexit might mean a 40% tariff is suddenly imposed on Irish beef products. Where does that leave its farmers and what about the delicious Greek blueberries I ate when last in Edinburgh?

Food security, fear of the unknown and threats of trade wars are why countries all over the world, particularly those with growing populations and a food trade deficit, are starting to develop their own food supplies, even when it is expensive to do so due to a lack of natural resources.

Meanwhile, in our own backyard, our own farmers are left to battle their way through volatile commodity storms, increasing compliance and urban disapproval. It's time we realised that we can't afford to take our food supply and our food producers for granted. It's a big, crazy world out there at the moment and as I have said before, food is the new oil - we take it for granted at our peril.

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin-based agri-technology company.

Comments

I wonder about the impact of New Zealand's proposed FTA with the EU. We are told that we will get cheap food off the back of farm subsidies given to European farmers. What will be the implication for our farmers of this competition. We read of the EU dumping dairy products into Africa and impoverising African farmers. The EU is currently trying to bully Switzerland over market access but the Swiss are standing up to their powerful neighbour. Will NZ show the same fortitude?

 

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