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Food and Agriculture

What future for food production in New Zealand?

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Amandine Paniagua

Published March 8 2022

The pandemic has added to food security challenges posed by climate change and significant conflicts. Yet even pre-pandemic, it was clear from the intergovernmental panel reports that our food production system, either in New Zealand or overseas, needs systemic change. As the oil tap becomes more and more expensive to run, industrial agriculture and food transport are becoming irrelevant, the same as nutritious goods loaded with pesticides when we need to strengthen our immunity. In the meantime, organic, local, regenerative food is expensive to grow and buy. Perceived as food for the privileged, organic food needs to be accessible for all.

One of the leading food issues is its perception of a cheap good. However, over fifty years ago, essentially almost everywhere in the Western World, people spent about 50 per cent of their livelihood on food. Nowadays, those with secured salaries spend only 15 to 20 per cent of their budget on nourishment. In the capitalist economy, part of the food investment transfers towards inflating house prices, living costs, shifting value and sending money to shareholders instead of quality food and farmers. Yet the price of ethical, sustainable food production didn't drop. Instead, the usage of pesticides, including fertilisers, herbicides and fungicides, in what should be called "chemically grown" instead of "conventional" agriculture has made it possible to cheaply produce a more considerable amount of low-quality food, blurring perceptions and pricing.

Large bodies of studies established the danger and consequences of chemical-loaded food, backed by court procedures highlighting the effects of chemical products used by farmers. Costs from the ground and air pollution combined with soil loss due to industrial-intensive food production are externalised, meaning cleaning, repairs, and healthcare are repaid by taxpayer dollars instead of reflected in food prices. In addition, prices also reflect the low wages of agricultural workers, contributing to farmer poverty. "Conventional" farmers, of course, are not evil souls. They are a unique set of people caring for their land and communities, doing the best they can in their current circumstances. Research from the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research in 2019 found farmers received 20 per cent of the retail price, as grower prices are dictated by large retailers, a figure which has not shifted in a decade. Many farmers are trapped and need help to get out of this industrial system. Overall, when buying established cheap food at supermarkets, we are not paying the actual cost of its production.

Thankfully the public is not entirely blind to these issues. In New Zealand, the organic sector is currently one of the largest growing agricultural sectors. Despite this growth, organic farmers producing with the seasons, with low waste still have to ensure retail prices reflect their work to continue. While they can adapt pricing to their local environment and their community, depending on the social-economic situation of their area, growers still need to pay their employees—if any, and themselves.

Why aren't governments doing more to remove heavy reliance on chemicals in our food supply?

It is no secret that part of the "conventional" farming community prefers to keep things as they are, system change costs money, and it is already a sector with difficulties. Yet, it shouldn't be up to agricultural corporations to direct the quality of our food. On the other hand, the government is there to make legislation stricter. Still, for some reason, it can't keep up with large agricultural corporations, focusing on the volume of pesticides while not questioning why there is so much chemical usage in the first place. The change shouldn't be about what chemicals farmers can use to grow food but instead pushing and promoting organics, incentivising farmers to switch to organic agriculture.

Potential solutions could be subsidising organic food production to create a cultural shift and financially supporting the growers who sustain and improve our environment instead of damaging what we have left. We know that governments won't enact policy changes unless there is a voice, pressure, and significant support from the population to say, "we want organic food". Organic lobby groups are doing their job, but they remain small. The general population also lacks education on the subject—unable to picture what it means to have good, nutritious food on the table. What does matter to us? What is important, changing phones every three months or feeding ourselves high-quality, nutritious food? Do we want to keep eating chemically loaded vegetables? It is up to everybody, workers and citizens, to lobby and be vocal about how the food situation makes us deeply unhappy and unhealthy.

What a resilient food system could look like?

The future of farming is also about food diversity, supplying hundreds of people a week but locally. Most food that people buy has already been in storage and cool rooms for weeks to months and transported. Shifting away from fossil fuels and preservatives means fresh organic food grows close to where it is consumed. In speaking with permaculture growers, a quarter acre is sufficient to feed three hundred people in fresh seasonal produce. This approach creates a resilient food system, requiring an extensive network of numerous small-scale community farms. It compensates for the loss of high volumes originating from single large farms while reducing transport, and building requirements like storage and supermarkets, through a direct-to-consumer model. However it also, in a country like New Zealand, this approach becomes challenging as land prices are grossly inflated.

And individuals' actions are essential, with consumers shifting from passive to active—growing lettuce in your backyard is part of this necessary cultural shift. Except for calorie crops, such as grains, fresh vegetables, and greens, can and should be grown locally within the community, as 80 to 100 square metres is enough for most households to supply their house with fresh vegetables. Of course, not everybody needs to grow their food, and not everybody has the time or the space to grow fresh vegetables, but in part, it is still achievable. Instead of going to the supermarket, an individual could pick 30 to 50 per cent of their vegetables right from their garden, deck, or sunny corner window. With a bit of effort, anyone can become a small-scale farmer, providing for their family and the local community. Gardening is a positive hobby, producing nutritious food while improving mental health and physical activity and encouraging community involvement through exchanging knowledge and resources.

Small-scale farming also encourages seed saving. Currently, in Aotearoa, most of the seeds come from overseas, which means our food is dependent on fossil fuel, and we are at the same time losing ancient species adapted to the local biosphere. The small-scale farming network system could vastly improve New Zealand's food system towards sufficiency and resilience. Unfortunately, the current economic system doesn't encourage small-scale farming, leaning towards favouring large agri-business.

What makes small-scale farming attractive is also about taste, freshness, the palate pleasure—there is nothing like eating a salad picked minutes ago. The food quality is so much higher, and it is something that only this way of agriculture can do.

That is why supporting your local, organic farm starts now. The current situation is that democratising organic food requires a mindset shift, with the government stepping in and revising its priorities. We believe massive government incentives are required for growers, that the money should flow to those growing crops that are healthy with nutrition, not with fungicides and pesticides. Today, 2 percent of our population is doing this job compared to 10 percent in the past. Countries have to educate and nurture more farmers. Thankfully, these farms already exist in rural and urban areas—Pakaraka in Coromandel, The Food Farm in Canterbury or Organic Market Auckland and Kelmarna Gardens in Auckland. We need more, and they need support. If you can afford this food, you can help your farmer. And learn, go to workshops, start growing your food, shift your budget.

The beauty of the change is that small scale farms cannot compete against each other. As there is so much one land can produce, it is a system based on cooperation taking into account the limitations of the land. Small scale farming paired with home gardening solves many environmental issues—reducing transport and fossil fuel dependency, in addition to pollution, while improving well-being. It is the future of food resilience for New Zealand and beyond.

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