Giving 2021 some certainty

11 January 2021

As 2020 drew to an end and we mistakenly thought that we were coming out of the Covid chaos, Covid and mother nature doubled down on us. The new more highly contagious Covid variants, hail storms, floods and seasonal labour supply have collectively made growing, selling and exporting fruit, berries and vegetables that much harder.  It is not a great start to 2021.

Looking back on 2020, some interesting trends have emerged, on which United Fresh has reported.  As a result of Covid, these trends include:

  • Eating healthy food is top of the list for consumers
  • Food hygiene is also very important
  • There are fewer visits to supermarkets with shoppers doing bigger shopping trips.  Pre-Covid, the trend had been towards more and smaller shopping trips
  • Online grocery shopping has surged by 25% in the US, 40% in Asia and nearly 30% in New Zealand.
  • Locally grown food is more sought after
  • 60% of shoppers worldwide want to know where food is sourced from.

In 2021 these trends will continue and, if there are further incidences of Covid community transmission in New Zealand, they will accelerate.  This is good news for New Zealand’s growers. 

There are, however, a series of major issues that New Zealand growers are facing.  Significant adverse weather events are destroying crops, as happened over Christmas. Of most concern is that these significant weather events are becoming more frequent and appear to be more severe due to climate change. 

At the same time, water shortages in the north and east of New Zealand are inhibiting our ability to grow the healthy food that is in such high demand.  Border restrictions are affecting airfreight options, with 90% fewer passenger flights (that normally also carry fresh produce) leaving New Zealand.  Also, the ability for exporters to visit and make deals with their offshore customers is very restricted due to quarantine.  In particular, finding new customers overseas has become very difficult.  Covid has disrupted the entire supply chain, including sea freight.  Getting perishable produce across the world to our offshore consumers in top quality is also very difficult.

Added to this are labour problems.  Prior to Covid, many specialists travelled the world providing their expertise.  The wine industry is a good example, where a winemaker would work in the Northern Hemisphere and then the Southern Hemisphere producing wine.  For everything that we grow, there are experts that before Covid, travelled the world.  That was not possible for much of 2020 and will in all likelihood not be possible for 2021.  For horticulture, access to high quality and skilled seasonal labour from offshore to supplement New Zealanders has also become very problematic.  Border restrictions have seriously affected labour movement around the world and what we have seen in New Zealand (so far) is a continued shortage of workers onshore. 

At every turn, growers are facing increased and difficult challenges from growing right through the entire supply chain to the consumer.  All these challenges are expensive to manage and in the case of the weather, destroy crops resulting in a total loss of income. 

We, therefore, need new approaches to get through 2021.  These new processes did start last year with, for example, the Government granting the movement of 2,000 seasonal workers from the Pacific.  While this number was not enough, it is a good example of what will need to become more common practice as we move into 2021: Government and industry working together to solve the challenges facing the primary sector, bearing in mind that we will not get everything we need to be able to feed people and generate offshore funds from selling our produce.  We need to adapt and be flexible if we are going to be able to address the challenges and find workable solutions to them. 

Above all, we need to be innovative because what worked pre-Covid and what may have worked in 2020, will need to be re-engineered to fit the realities of the evolving world we now live in.  We are all facing some enormous challenges in 2021, and we are all working to collectively address them, in our crazy new world.

Mike Chapman

Chief Executive