Source: Massey University
Over the past 18 months, much has been made of New Zealand’s decisive and effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic. But while strict border measures, periodic lockdowns and rigorous public health measures have by and large insulated our population from the virus itself, it’s also been plainly apparent that the potential impacts of such an event stretch well beyond the risk of infection.
Though far from the only example, one of the most immediately apparent and broadly felt of these impacts was our access to quality food – a 2020 report from the Child Poverty Action Group suggesting that the number of New Zealanders experiencing food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic topped one million. With this figure representing a 100% increase on an already reasonably high baseline – 2019 research by the Auckland City Mission estimated that 10% of the population was food insecure – it begs the question: how did Aotearoa, a nation feted for its produce and renowned for its primary exports, get here?
For the final episode in the second season of Conversations That Count – Ngā Kōrero Whai Take, we seek to answer – or at least unravel – that question, examining the practices and processes that govern our modern food systems, from paddock to plate (and often, to the world).
Hosted as always by Stacey Morrison, this episode’s guests are Julian Heyes of Massey University and Veronica Shale of Fair Food NZ. The episode’s kōrero spans everything from how produce exports became our primary sector’s bread and butter (and the perhaps surprisingly small footprint of Aotearoa in the broader international market) to the reasons for – and potential solutions to – the skyrocketing rates of food insecurity that we’ve seen locally.
Professor Heyes brings a sharp analytical voice to the kōrero, drawing on his considerable expertise and experience as the head of Massey University’s School of Food and Advanced Technology. With his specialisation lying in the practice of international trade in fresh fruit, vegetables and cut flowers, and his research focusing on “connecting science to [the] growth of the New Zealand bioeconomy”, he’s a firm believer that our modern, globalised food systems present considerably more advantages than drawbacks for the country.
“There aren’t many affluent nations in the world which are so heavily dependent on producing food for export. Something like 95% of the dairy products that we produce in New Zealand are sold offshore. In a sense, this is a triumph of the World Trade Organization way of looking at the world. It’s the idea that some countries are really good at doing some things and other countries are good at doing others, [so] why don’t we let countries do what they’re good at, and trade the goods internationally.”
Shale, on the other hand, brings a significantly different perspective to the podcast. As the executive director of Fair Food – supreme award winner at last year’s New Zealand Food Awards powered by Massey University – her focus is firmly local, and squarely focused on accessibility and equity in our food supply.
Fair Food were awarded for their efforts to rapidly and sustainably scale up their operations in the wake of Covid-19, with the volume of food redistributed by the charity increasing from an already impressive 121 tonnes in 2019 to a staggering 143 tonnes per month while the country was in lockdown. As Shale states plainly, “While we’re not a household name, we are in thousands of households every week.”
Fair Food itself acts as something of an intermediary, ensuring that usable waste food makes its way to community groups and charities in order to feed those in need. Having spent so much time and effort working at the confluence of private and public efforts to feed Aotearoa, Shale feels strongly that improving our collective efforts to minimise food waste would have tangible downstream benefits.
“We do have the best food producers in the world, we have the best food … we have an entrepreneurial spirit and we have the environmental credentials to boot. We should be leading the way on producing food sustainably and innovatively, and probably in a more circular fashion – we see all of this great [waste] food coming through our space, and there’s opportunity here to upcycle, to innovate, to collaborate and create social enterprises. That could help with access as well as job creation … and that would help with food not being lost out of the food chain.”
While both of our guests acknowledge that the issues discussed in this kōrero are complicated and can’t be addressed in isolation, both are also keen to reinforce that this is one area in which individuals can have a meaningful stake in driving change. Although shoring up our supply chains against future threats, improving accessibility for those less privileged and – crucially – building and maintaining these systems in a way that considers long-term climate and sustainability impacts won’t happen by accident, this episode makes a strong argument for the case that if we can work collectively, that future is not yet out of reach.