'Not all communities' will have food security in future as COVID-19 crisis highlights supply and poverty struggles

COVID-19 highlighted weaknesses in the country's food supply and security.
COVID-19 highlighted weaknesses in the country's food supply and security. Photo credit: Getty

At the end of April, following the country's shift from alert level 4 to 3 in the COVID-19 lockdown, McDonald's customers were met with some strange news. 

At some restaurants, there would be no lettuce in their Big Macs. 

"Due to demand, some of our stores have temporarily run out of lettuce," the company posted online. "You can still order your favourites, but for those stores that have run out, they will be made without lettuce. Thank you for your understanding."

For many New Zealanders the food shortages seen during the pandemic - empty supermarket shelves and lettuce-less burgers - were a first. 

And though most shortages were due to workers in lockdown or supply chain hold-ups, there are fears that unless the country makes some serious changes to how we think about food supply and security, such shortages could become normal.

Mike Chapman, chief executive of Horticulture New Zealand, says McDonald's running out of lettuce was a warning not to be ignored.

If it's not a pandemic, then it might be climate change-induced severe weather or another unforeseen disaster, says Chapman, but the end result will be the same: without better planning, the country will struggle to feed itself in the future.

"The greatest fear is you won't always learn the lessons that you have in crisis," he told Newshub.

Chapman is calling for the Government to enable his industry, and others vital for producing the country's food, to be able to grow to meet future population demands.

"We are concerned that unless we do the things we need to enable horticulture, feeding New Zealand will be a critical issue." 

One area identified as sorely lacking is a national framework for growers.

Currently, each council has differing regulations which Chapman says can be stifling for growers trying to get the necessary permits and consent to purchase or fully utilise valuable growing land.

Kylie Faulkner
Kylie Faulkner Photo credit: Newshub

Kylie Faulkner, of Sutherland Produce and the president of the Pukekohe Vegetable Growers Association, says such uncertainty around regulations has a "flow-on effect" for the industry.

"There's unintended consequences that will come as a result of this," she says. "Growers would love to see a specific set of rules for the whole country."

One fear many growers have is that nutrient-rich land will slowly slip away from them.

More regulations mean more uncertainty. And that means banks are often less willing to lend growers money to buy land when it does come up for sale. The result is land ideal for growing ends up being sold to investors for housing and is lost forever.

"It's easier to build McMansions," says Hugh Campbell, a professor of sociology at Otago University. "And I think this is a major policy failing in New Zealand."

Campbell told Newshub when it comes to having a long-term food security policy New Zealand is left wanting.

"New Zealand has an extremely narrow policy platform around agriculture, compared to say places like the EU or even the UK," he says. 

"We don't make policy about things generally other than how to produce as much stuff as possible and have the offshore funnel working as efficiently as possible."

The limited policy we do have is focused primarily on supporting pastoral exports "and we've never really branched sideways out of that", he said.

The result is that growers are "very, very vulnerable" to regional plans drawn up by councils who "just haven't really thought in this area".

He agrees that there needs to be a national policy statement on food security but says creating one would not be easy.

"If you wanted to go into a food security policy you would have to start from scratch in New Zealand because we've got no history of policymaking or even any kind of governing framework."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor told Newshub the Government recognises the importance of domestic supply of fresh vegetables.

Because of that, special consideration was given to growers in the recently announced Essential Freshwater package, he said.

"We were careful to avoid a one-size-fits-none model, which is why we’ve exempted vegetable growers from some requirements and keep our high-quality healthy food affordable."

He said work was underway on a national policy statement to protect special growing land from housing development pressures.

The biggest threat to our food security

Although the COVID-19 pandemic revealed certain weaknesses in the country's food supply and security, they were caused by supply chain issues rather than by a real lack of food.

Zack Dorner, a lecturer in environmental economics at the University of Waikato, says the biggest threat to the country's food supply comes from environmental challenges. 

"There are future risks we will have to adapt to as our climate changes, such as increased flooding events, droughts, heat stress for crops and so on," he says.

"We will have to adapt what we do, for example changing crop varieties or what we farm."

Chapman says more certainty around growing regulations would mean it would be easier to spread fruit and vegetable production around the country, essentially mitigating potential risks caused by climate change and severe weather events.

"So if you have a massive earthquake or enormous drought down the East Coast, for example, like we did this year, you're growing what you need to feed New Zealand in other places - so that if one region isn't able to feed New Zealand perhaps a region further away might."

But Campbell says even in the face of a disaster, New Zealand will never struggle to produce enough food to feed itself, at least not any time soon.

"New Zealand produces enough calories to feed 10 times its population," he says.

"We are never going to face caloric deficits in New Zealand - not in any foreseeable future.

"If there was some global catastrophe even greater than COVID-19 we would simply re-tune ourselves towards a much simpler diet and we'd be all eating a lot of mutton and dairy products, but we wouldn't starve. So New Zealand doesn't fundamentally face food security challenges in the traditional way that countries around the world generally think of food security as an issue."

Food security and poverty

Of much more immediate and severe concern, is Kiwis' access to the food we do produce.

"Our main issue is that not all communities in New Zealand have food security due to lack of access to enough food, and to healthy food," Dorner says.

According to the Ministry of Health, almost one in five Kiwi kids (19 percent) currently live in severely to moderately food-insecure households. Compared to children in food-secure households they are much more likely to have a lower fruit and vegetable intake.

Campbell says this shows that while securing land with high-value soil is vitally important and needs to be a priority, in the greater scheme it is only one part of the equation. 

"It doesn't matter how much horticulture you have growing in Pukekohe unless you're addressing those income issues then people are not going to be able to afford food."

The Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni told Newshub the Government was committed to ensuring New Zealanders have access to the support they are entitled to in gaining access to food, including through hardship assistance and special food grants.

In response to COVID-19 a further $32 million in funding had been allocated to strengthen community access to food and improve food security, she said.

"By supporting foodbanks and other organisations, we want to help to manage future shocks and provide greater food security for vulnerable New Zealanders."