In late January 2020 New Zealand’s trade minister David Parker got the “cold sweats”. This is according to The Economist (9 May 2020; paywalled): The world’s vulnerable food system.
The context was China’s decision to ban package tours from heading overseas for the lunar new-year holiday. Parker’s “cold sweats” were not primarily due to the loss of tourists, however.
More so it was because planes that did not bring tourists in one direction would not take agricultural produce back in the other. The significance is that China is New Zealand’s biggest customer for the food which is the latter’s biggest export.
Parker impressed The Economist which commended him for his foresight in responding. His response included engineering a deal with Air New Zealand.
The airline would get a loan if it kept routes to China, Singapore and America open. This would allow kiwi fruit and other delicacies out into the world even when the cabins above the hold were empty.
A highly vulnerable global system
The article’s prime focus was on the impact on people’s incomes under the pressure of the pandemic.
However, in the process several other interesting observations were made beginning with the importance of connectivity in food production and supply.
In its words:
Connectivity is what the world’s agro-industrial complex is all about. Four-fifths of the planet’s 8bn mouths are fed in part by imports; the $1.5trn that was paid for them last year  was three times 2000’s bill. Battalions of lorries and fleets of ships connect tens of millions of farms to hundreds of millions of shops and kitchens.
Although The Economist does emphasise robustness in the food system, nevertheless its observations suggest a highly vulnerable system. These other observations included:
- By their nature farms are local. However, much of the rest of the food industry is global. The supplies of seed, fertiliser, machinery and fuel that farmers need come from giant companies operating on a worldwide basis, sourcing, storing and shipping agricultural commodities for food-makers.
- In the past 20 years the industry has seen increased concentration of ownership as firms chase the advantages of scale. Half of America’s poultry market—the largest in the world—is now controlled by just four firms. Two of the six largest mergers in the 2010s were between companies in food and drink.
- The world’s breadbaskets have become more capital intensive.
- Globalisation has meant that more countries depend on imports.
- The food market is susceptible to sudden changes in demand.
- There are often sudden and unexpected transport bottlenecks.
- Moving perishables, such as fruit, vegetables, coffee and meat, is more problematic.
- In wealthier countries the result of disruptions in production and distribution is inconvenience. In other countries the result can be famine.
- Ordinarily supply chains run smoothly because short-term loans allow each link to pay for produce before selling it on. However, as operations slow down, the term of these loans is extended, trapping cash that could be lent elsewhere.
- The food market is constantly nervous. Relatively small actions can cause spikes, especially in thinly traded markets.
- The combined effect of export controls and stockpiling can be devastating to poor countries.
The Economist also noted that New Zealand is 20% more dependent on food imports than 20 years ago, which is at the top of the dependency range.
Call for a national food plan
Three years after David Parker’s “cold sweats” Stuff journalist Brianna Mcilraith published an article (22 February 2023) questioning why New Zealand produced enough food for 40 million people when its supermarket shelves were “bare”: Call for a national plan to tackle food insecurity.
Mcilraith cites Elaine Rush, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition at the Auckland University of Technology, who refers to World Health Organisation’s four pillars of food security:
- Consistent and sufficient availability.
- Access to appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.
- Use of food for nutritional wellbeing.
- Stable access to foods at all times.
According to WHO, food security only existed when there was a reliable supply and people had access to healthy foods that are were affordable and safe.
Rush notes that in the early 1990s the then Public Health Commission said in a report on the state of the country’s public health, that New Zealand’s food supply was more than adequate to provide enough nutritious and safe food for everyone.
But today, she advised, New Zealand’s food system was not able to provide the first two of WHO’s pillars. Supermarkets were not the problem because they are at end of “…a chain of events – from the farm to the shelf.”
Rather supermarkets can’t “…get the supply. Ideally New Zealand should be self-sufficient in food, but we do import a lot.” This led her to call for a national food plan, including better storage.
In the words of Dr Sally Mackay of the Health Coalition Aotearoa:
A national food sovereignty and nutrition strategy is urgently needed which addresses resilience in the food supply along the continuum of production to consumption in Aotearoa – including food security, transport, distribution and pricing.
Two days later another insightful Brianna Mcilraith Stuff article dug further into consumption of New Zealand’s food production: Whose eating all our food.
A Venezuelan aside
In so many ways New Zealand and Venezuela are two countries which could not be further apart – economically, politically and geographically to begin with. Apparently, however, the standard of men’s basketball is not too far apart.
But there is a spirit of a Venezuelan inspired initiative which should be considered. It is consistent at the very least with a national food plan.
In response to longstanding hostility from the United States, including severe economic sanctions, in 2015 Venezuela adopted a new seed law:
This is discussed in an article published by Monthly Review Online (19 January): Venezuelan seed law should be a global model.
The article discusses the international domination of seed production by large corporations, including through the use of patents and transgenic seeds, at the expense of country food sovereignty.
After a bitter conflict with the formerly controlling Monsanto, under the 2015 law imported seeds (especially of garden vegetables) have “practically disappeared” and replaced by seeds for more traditional crops (which have always been under popular control).
The effect of the law is to be a plan for food sovereignty reinforced by governance and enforcement structures. It is very much bottom-up delivered.
Nevertheless it is still work in progress. Further, there are ongoing intense efforts by hostile commercial and political interests to undermine it.
Profit maximisation versus food sovereignty
The current global food system is dominated by the drive to maximum profits at every step of a long and complex chain from farm to supermarket. Food sovereignty, reinforced by a national food plan, runs contrary to this drive.
Endeavours to establish a national food plan in New Zealand won’t attract the same intensity of opposition as Venezuela because of their different circumstances.
But establishing a national food plan in New Zealand will still be opposed by these profit-maximisation interests.
All the more reason for giving it a go.