While we may think of food insecurity as a problem mostly associated with poverty, the lack of resilience in our food system means we are all closer to food insecurity than we might realise

The Commerce Commission is exploring the need for expanding the supermarket choices consumers have in New Zealand. The Australian-owned duopolies are suspected of overcharging and deceiving customers, bullying smaller suppliers and competitors, with much of the profits going offshore. While these issues are certainly reason enough for the Commerce Commission to investigate, there are actually more fundamental questions to ask about this country’s food system.

Do we currently have food security in New Zealand? Is our food system resilient to a range of threats we are likely to experience in the coming decades? Arguably, the answer to both questions is “no”, and more importantly, more supermarket chains are not going to solve either problem.

Food security is defined as meaning that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

In New Zealand we have large segments of society who are either food insecure and/or malnourished. Close to half of children living in poverty in here experience food insecurity at least some of the time, and 20 percent most of the time. Presumably, their parents also experience food insecurity. Close to a quarter of our elderly are malnourished. That adds up to a lot of New Zealanders, potentially a million of us.

Despite producing large quantities of food for export, our food system is not adequately meeting basic food security needs of large segments of our populations. Frankly, it’s a national disgrace.

Read more: The energy dilemma of eating 

While we may think of food insecurity as a problem mostly associated with poverty, the lack of resilience in our food system means we are all closer to food insecurity than we might realise. Supermarket just-in-time supply chains generally have only a few days’ supply in the system, meaning that an extended disruption will impact consumers. Given that we import a large portion of what we eat, this means we are vulnerable not only to New Zealand-based disruptions, but also to disruptions anywhere along those long international supply lines. Food supply chain disruptions from the pandemic have been noted by the OECD.  

The fact that we produce large quantities of food, largely for export, may not fully compensate for major disruptions to food imports.  Many countries have experienced famines while still satisfying their high-paying export customers who must be served according to international agreements.

The fact is that our global food system is vulnerable to disruption from many sources, ranging from climate change, pandemics, natural disasters, recent cyber-attacks, and political and economic circumstances far beyond our immediate control. In addition, industrial scale agriculture creates many environmental and social problems globally as well as in New Zealand. These require urgent remediation to bring food production everywhere within the bounds of sustainability. How can we have food security over the long run (which is what resilience is about) with a food system that is inherently unsustainable?

Our current food system is uneconomic from energy and environmental perspectives. It uses more energy than it produces in calories and does more environmental harm to soil, water and air than our natural systems can bear.

Likely disruptions associated with climate change alone, not to mention earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, suggests more attention to the resilience of our food systems is warranted. Part of our needed adaptation to anticipated climate impacts is creating resilient communities, and food security should be at the heart of our efforts to do so.

Different thinking is needed regarding both our food security and the resilience of our entire food system. We need to think differently about production and distribution to ensure both.

Food resilience is about not only recovering from disruptions to an adequate food supply, but also about preventing any type of disruption from having a significant impact on our access to sufficient, healthy food.

Two of the most important changes to our food system that would improve our food resilience would be to relocalise food production and distribution, and ensure it is produced organically. Relocalising means having the means of production within easy transport distance from the table. Best, of course, is a backyard garden where the distance is measured in metres rather than kilometres.

Where not practical, or as a supplement, community gardens and allotments are possible, as well as community-based and -owned food clubs or co-ops for non-perishable bulk items. Schemes such as Community Supported Agriculture involve contractual arrangements with local farmers whereby members are guaranteed good quality local food in exchange for some up-front funding, which in turn helps local growers manage their cash flow. Farmers’ market days that feature locally-grown produce are popular and fun to visit and meet friends. Promoting local vegetarian cuisine would create mutually profitable connections between local farmers and restaurants, as well as reduce agricultural emissions.

There is considerable skill and experience available in New Zealand regarding market gardening for local consumption. Where are the government programs to promote and train interested parties to learn these skills and expand the opportunities for local food production throughout the country? The knowledge and skills required differ from those taught in horticulture programs which are aimed more at supplying labour for the food export market. Such market garden programs would not be expensive and could well attract people currently suffering from food insecurity, creating viable employment in the process

If there is any doubt about the capacity of locally grown food to support large numbers of people have a look at these examples, some of them for free.

Perhaps the Commerce Commission could expand its current focus on supermarket operations by taking the Government’s declaration of a climate emergency seriously … and consider how our food system could become resilient in the face of increasing risks to our wellbeing.

There is considerable land available even in urban and nearby areas for market gardening, more than enough to supply large portions of our food needs, as well as create meaningful local employment. The drive to expand urban agriculture even in large cites is global, but to date no New Zealand cities are participating.

An extensive system of local organic food production would go a long way to addressing both issues of food security and food resilience. But currently, governments both minimise such small-scale enterprises and actually make it difficult for them to operate competitively against the large food conglomerates that dominate our current vulnerable food system.  

Politicians would likely argue that protecting large food businesses is good for the economy and creates employment opportunities.  While there may be some truth to such claims, they ignore the opportunities for food security and resilience that a more distributed production system would provide, as well as the many environmental and health benefits that would ensue. More local production and distribution would also see more distributed employment and cash circulating in our communities rather than going overseas.

Another example of government restrictions on local food production are the rules regarding chickens in urban or suburban settings.  Studies show that local egg production can have a much smaller ecological footprint, and be less expensive to operate than large-scale factory egg production and marketing. The eggs on your table would be fresher and taste better to boot. Restrictions about local butcheries also inhibit local food opportunities.

Growing food organically would also reduce the need to import large quantities of artificial fertilizers that too often end up polluting our water systems. They also destroy soil microbes that are essential to healthy soils – the very base of a resilient food system. Such imports also mean large sums of money going overseas. These funds could more constructively be circulated within New Zealand to support organic growers and help them expand more widely throughout the country.

There is also a huge problem of food loss and waste throughout the food chain. While some organisations have cleverly found ways of redistributing food waste, the longer-term solution involves ensuring people have food security without relying on such efforts, noble as they are.

Food security and resilience are not only about growing food locally, it’s also about preserving and processing it for storage and later consumption. In the past, such local processing was more common and more widely distributed across the country. Home preserving is possible for some, but there are business opportunities for those with the interests and skills who might wish to do it on a small local scale. 

While it’s clear that basic hygiene standards must be met, a review of current standards and regulations might well reveal opportunities for simplifications that would make the smaller enterprises viable, rather than setting such unnecessarily high standards to protect the large producers. These enterprises might not be as sexy as high tech start-ups but they are basic to our collective physical and social wellbeing.

Another potential benefit from a more localised and widely distributed food system would be the likely development of specialty foods at different locations throughout the country, based on unique local resources and initiatives (think of heritage seeds, and the many local cheeses throughout France, or sausages in Germany). Such developments would be a welcomed contribution to domestic tourism.

Our current food system is uneconomic from energy and environmental perspectives. It uses more energy than it produces in calories (the very definition of unsustainability), and does more environmental harm to soil, water and air than our natural systems can bear. Long-distance transport contributes to harmful emissions – to both our lungs and the climate. Most supermarket food is highly-processed, with chemical additives that would no longer be necessary with fresh local produce. Nor would there be need for large amounts of salts and sugars in many processed food products which contribute to a host of serious dental and other major health issues.

Arguments might be made that our current food system is highly efficient at bringing a variety of goods to consumers across the country. But these systems are very fragile and vulnerable to disruption as evident from pandemic-triggered shortages in various locations around the world. Such disruptions will only increase with expected climate disasters, pandemics and cyber-attacks on large food chains. Resilient systems are not “efficient” in this sense; resilient systems have overlaps and redundancies which is what makes them resilient. Effective provision of adequate, healthy foods from healthy gardens is the goal, not efficient distribution of unsustainable food products that don’t meet these criteria. Why is efficiency desirable if the system is fragile and unsustainable to begin with?

Making our food system more resilient is not only a matter of changing how we produce and distribute our food in New Zealand. It is also about our shared expectations of what good food is, and how we relate to seasonal availability. Supermarket access to any foods any time of the year have weakened our skills in eating seasonally. 

Making good use of what is available in season takes some getting used to, but it can greatly reduce food costs and lead to healthier and tastier eating year round. We have long growing seasons in most parts of New Zealand, and resurrecting some lost food preservation skills would mean we could have nutritious local food every season. And fresh foods don’t need all the plastic packaging that is overwhelming efforts at waste reduction.

Anyone who has not seriously looked into vegetarian cuisine might be pleasantly surprised at the variety of dishes possible with local produce. Since vegetarian dishes are drawn from a wide variety of cultures, there are recipes to suit a wide range of tastes, all easily accessible from the internet. Expanding your vegetarian diet might take a bit of experimenting, but eating fresh, healthy local food from growers you know and trust can be good for your health as well as the planet.

Perhaps the Commerce Commission could expand its current focus on supermarket operations by taking the Government’s declaration of a climate emergency seriously, as should all government departments, and consider how our food system could become resilient in the face of increasing risks to our wellbeing.

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