Opinion: Food supply and security, and McDonald’s lack of lettuce

  • Opinion
  • 06/05/2020

By Mike Chapman

OPINION: Like a dog howling at the moon, Horticulture New Zealand has been on about the need for New Zealand to have a food security policy and plan. 

Pre-COVID-19, we gained no traction.  But here are some facts from day one of the COVID-19 Alert Level 3, when tens of thousands of Kiwis flocked to pick up food from restaurants.

McDonald's sold 300,000 burgers.  This was double the number for the same day last year, and last year, you could go into McDonald’s and sit down.  The key point is that McDonald's didn't have enough lettuce.  McDonald's ran out of lettuce! 

It takes around 90 days in summer and around 150 days in winter (as it is colder) for lettuce to grow from seed, and get it delivered to McDonald's or your food retailer.  In COVID-19 Alert Levels 4 and 3, restaurants, markets and fresh fruit and vegetable retailers were all closed.

The growers that grow produce like lettuce for these outlets had nowhere to sell their produce, so many of them decided not to replant.  HortNZ has continually argued unsuccessfully for independent fruit and vegetable retailers to be open to give these growers somewhere to sell their produce.  As a result, some may have already gone out of business or chosen to exit growing.

Mike Chapman (left) says New Zealand needs a food security policy and plan.
Mike Chapman (left) says New Zealand needs a food security policy and plan. Photo credit: Supplied

But now there are places for them to sell their produce, some planting may start again.  However, as we are moving into winter, it will take some time for the supply chain to produce the lettuces for the likes of McDonald's.  A shortage of lettuces and other fresh produce will mean there is less fresh and healthy food to feed New Zealand.

This shortage is just one example of why we, as a country, need a food security and supply policy: it takes a long time to grow the produce we need. 

We need to also plan for climatic events.  At present, many of our growing regions are still in severe drought.  This situation is limiting production as a lack of water inhibits plant growth.  (We need water storage projects urgently, but that is another topic.)

Reliance is being placed on growing areas that are not suffering from drought to provide fresh food.  We also need to grow fresh and healthy food close to our main population centres.  Turning productive land into houses and lifestyle blocks reduces land for growing food and limits the ability to spread growing out around the country to combat climatic and other events.

McDonald's running out of lettuce is a warning we should not ignore.  Vegetable shortages will become a more frequent occurrence unless we get serious about ensuring we have enough food to feed New Zealand. 

Now is the time to develop and implement that food security policy and plan that HortNZ has been going on about, before it's too late. 

Mike Chapman is Chief Executive of Horticulture NZ