Complexity around food security and 'phenomenal' industry success headlines

29 June 2022

The Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt is calling on the Government to put in place ‘a national strategy… that can guarantee the progressive realisation of the right to food’, citing that ‘Aotearoa's food security has grown worse every year since 2015’.

This call comes at a time when a project ‘redirecting hundreds of tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables to food banks and community organisations, ensuring the country’s most vulnerable had access to nutritious food', is being rightfully applauded and is up for Primary Industries New Zealand Award.

The Chief Human Rights Commissioner’s call also comes when there are endless stories about inflation and cost of living increases, with the media focusing frequently on the price of fresh vegetables. 

On the other hand, however, Government Ministers and officials are celebrating the ‘phenomenal’ news that New Zealand’s primary exports will reach $52.2 billion by the end of June 2022, which will be a 9 percent increase on the previous 12 months.

So, what’s going on here? Quite simply, the ‘phenomenal’ news is about revenue and not about returns to growers or farmers. In other words, the headline only tells half the story. The other half is about across the board costs that have risen quickly – with no end in sight – and ongoing challenges in getting product to overseas markets, due to the ongoing impacts of Covid. 

In terms of domestic food security, there is also complexity behind the stories. On the one hand, the media decries the price of vegetables – often ignoring other more significant factors behind cost-of-living increases, like the rising cost of fuel – but seems reluctant to put pressure on the Government to take decisive action. That is, address declining domestic food security and New Zealanders’ increasing reliance on food banks and ‘free’ fruit and vegetables, which is not sustainable – for those New Zealanders as well as the country’s domestic horticulture industry. 

In saying this, I am not implying there is an easy fix – there’s not. It has taken New Zealand decades to get to the situation we’re in today, with low levels of productivity and high margins and returns on only a narrow range of products, many of which are under increasing pressure due to climate change and changing consumer preferences, as I outlined in my update last week.  [link] 

What is the answer?

Grower margins need to increase to a level that’s sustainable in the widest sense. That is, where growers are making returns on their investments at a level which they can also re-invest in the changes necessary to combat climate change, while feeding New Zealanders and the rest of the world. 

Increasing grower margins (returns) by 2030 is an objective of the Aotearoa Horticulture Action Plan. This increase needs to be across the board, not just in the sexer parts of our industry which let’s face it, come in for criticism perhaps because of their success. 

Also, while we need to focus on the future as it will be here before we know it, our immediate focus needs to be on the present before too many growers go out of business. That is a reality that the Government and officials do not seem to want to hear as it compromises the ‘phenomenal’ success story. 

But as I’ve said – the ‘phenomenal’ success is revenue when we all know, the world over, that costs are rising and rising fast, at levels not seen for decades. 

Come on Government! Let’s get back to the team of 5 million approach, and work together to find solutions, particularly when it comes to unworkable red tape and compliance, ongoing labour restrictions in our lowest unemployment environment for more than 50 years. As an industry, we are MORE than happy to help build understanding and find workable solutions, because unless we do that, our home-grown food supply for New Zealanders is at significant risk. 

Food security