Covid-19 resulted in the first time that many New Zealanders saw empty supermarket shelves. That was alarming for many, and made us ask the question: “when push comes to shove, will there be enough food to go around?” As a producer and exporter of wine, milk, meat and cherries (to name a few), you might think “all is fine, we don’t need to worry, we have the essentials covered.” Yet why did we have empty shelves? Why did we run out of the essentials like yeast, bread and toilet paper? Why am I still eating rizzoni pasta 6 months past the worst of the lockdown?
What is Food Insecurity?
Before I can explore the political arguments, there are 2 different types of food insecurity: there is poverty and material deprivation induced food insecurity, (this is the empty shelves in your cupboards at home or despite the availability of food it is inaccessible due to the inability to pay for it). Whereas widespread, or localised food insecurity is where, regardless of your income, there is not enough on the supermarket shelves in your area.
We cannot deny that poverty induced food insecurity is a massive issue in New Zealand, worthy of its own focus and an area which I will only comment on by saying ‘it is a huge and complex issue worthy of a lot more attention than the status quo’. However time, and word count constraints leave me with the latter to focus on today.
FoodTruths saw and reported real insecurity here in New Zealand during lockdown, despite our status as a ‘producing nation’. Some of our produce is rendered useless without imported ingredients. Take for example the use of Vitamin C to preserve fresh fruit and vegetables we produce in NZ (as juice or otherwise), 95% of Vitamin C used as an additive is produced in China and requires stable international trade (See Helen’s article here).
In addition we saw the impact of poor food education. People panic bought the wrong things. When talking to a local grocer he mentioned that they sold out of all seeds including tomato seeds in March. This will prove fruitless, tomatoes don’t grow in March, (especially as these were in the very cold Central Otago).
Furthermore, locally produced vegetables were also some of the first to go, now I’m not one to condone panic buying but if you are going to stock up for the next pandemic, disaster or apocalypse, go for the things which aren’t produced down your road (that is, will continue to be available). Get hold of some yeast, sugar and things that will help you preserve your food.
The problem of localised insecurity is a complex one, with roots in poor food education and impossibly complex and untransparent food systems. We were interested in the NZ position and posed this question to a variety of Ministers, this is what they had to say:
Barbara Kuriger claimed ‘We are a country that is not short of food - we are food producers, so we have enough, and the panic during Covid was more about making sure that people could get enough out of their supermarket so that they could go less often rather than more often’. Well that is true in many respects however it doesn’t truly address the problem of food insecurity, there is no mention of needing a better understanding of local production nor making food chains more transparent, so that they are, in turn, more resilient. Overall an uninspiring response.
Damien O’Connor, the current Minister for Food Safety, took an interesting focus and managed to bring the Resource Management Act (Election 2020 buzzword) into his response. Damien rightly points out the impact that urban sprawl is reducing growing land availability in New Zealand, and Labour’s efforts focus on reducing that impact, and in turn protecting growing land, and increasing production capabilities. It is a boring, but very safe answer. Growing land is under extreme strain in areas, especially in the likes of Pukekohe, because of a widespread epidemic of urban/ semi-rural development. National, in comparison, had little desire to interfere with the land market in that way. But, Hon Damien O’Connor rightly points out that we need land to grow food, ensuring food security in the long run.
However what Damien’s response doesn’t protect is food security in the short term, if Covid gets more ugly, or international trade of food is more impacted, there is little that this sentiment can do for us in the shorter term.
The Greens on the other hand have taken a very familiar line. With a lot of familiar Green rhetoric, “Organic” “Regenerative” “Local food production” all made an appearance. Predictability aside, they have appreciated the problem we are trying to explore. Not leaving the heavy lifting to dairy, seems sensible. Focusing on self sufficiency and encouraging sustainable options close to home are all good objectives. Greens backed them up with a National Food Strategy, investigating the need for a national food and seed reserve and funding for regenerative agriculture and sustainable growing initiatives. Overall a comprehensive response which takes the issue seriously. The debate about production methods and yield is one for another day.
The bottom line is that food insecurity is complex - the ability to purchase nutritious food means that the food has to be available and you need to have the means to purchase it. The political responses certainly ran along predictable party lines - were they inspiring? Not really. Were they consumer-centric, not at all. We would argue that food insecurity requires a comprehensive approach that includes aspects such as food education, and diversification.
Tune back in for Part 3: Preventive health policies, and lack thereof. Why in a pandemic we need to prioritise healthy eating.
Or read more about Food Insecurity in the wake of Covid-19, here.