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Q+A: Mike Chapman interviewed by Corin Dann

Urban sprawl impact on NZ horticulture land “quite extreme” – warns industry

Horticulture New Zealand is calling on the new Government to protect locally-grown food as urban sprawl threatens valuable growing land.

Its CEO, Mike Chapman, says the impact is already “quite extreme” and set to get worse with plans to increase the number of houses from 20,000 to 50,000 in Pukekohe alone.

“Where you’ve got something like Pukekohe, which is an absolute jewel for growing vegetables, we should be protecting it and pushing the houses somewhere else,” he says.

Only five percent of New Zealand has the soil quality required to grow horticulture, and failure to protect these areas comes with a warning. “If we don’t, we’ll be increasing our imports – fresh, nutritious locally grown food will not be available, and at the moment, we don’t have county of origin labelling, so the consumers won’t know where they’re buying their food from. It could be from anywhere in the world,” Mr Chapman says.

Mr Chapman is urging the Government to work with Horticulture New Zealand to establish measures that will ensure horticulture needs are balanced with the desire for increased housing, which, he says, will ensure “we can feed the country.”


Q + A
Episode 34
Interviewed by CORIN DANN

CORIN There’s a fresh voice calling for Auckland housing to go up rather than out, and it’s from New Zealand’s fruit and vegetable growers. They’re concerned that urban sprawl is eating up our productive land and putting our supply of fresh food at risk. And it’s not just in Auckland, but many other parts of the country, where the population is growing as well and the need for housing is acute. Horticulture New Zealand’s chief executive, Mike Chapman, joins me now. Good morning to you, Mike.

MIKE Good morning.

CORIN How much of a problem is this, really?

MIKE This is a very significant problem, because as cities expand, what we’re losing is very valuable, highly productive land for growing fruit and vegetables, in particularly Pukekohe, for example, here in Auckland. Their soils are very unique. Generally speaking, they are frost free. That is a great place to grow vegetables. Pukekohe feeds this country during spring with spring vegetables – lettuce etc. So if we lose Pukekohe, we’ll be importing fruit and vegetables, but particularly vegetables.

CORIN How much of an impact are we already seeing in Pukekohe?

MIKE Already, the impact’s quite extreme. The plan is to go from 20,000 to 50,000 houses, and that’s a lot of housing coming in. Some of the land is protected under the Auckland plan, but not all the land. What we’re seeing is some of the gardens – the commercial garden operations – are being surrounded by houses, which has taken away their ability to operate efficiently. It is a real issue, and we need to focus on it. But what we’re saying is not houses or horticulture. We say houses and horticulture. Let’s plant the houses where it’s not good to grow vegetables.

CORIN The market gardeners presumably don’t have to sell, though, do they?

MIKE No, they don’t, and many of them don’t. And sometimes they do. But you can’t farm effectively when you’ve got houses right up against your boundaries. You’ve got to have the ability farm sensibly and use the land for the purposes it’s been given to us.

CORIN And how important is it to have those growing lands close to the city?

MIKE Well, in the olden days, of course, vegetables were grown next to the city – close supply, fresh, nutritious vegetables getting into the population. Very important. But Pukekohe is an example – the soils there are really valuable, and that’s what we should be saving. Sure, you can move your operations further south, and that can happen. In the Waikato at the moment, that’s a bit difficult. But you’ve got to have the right soils. So where you’ve got something like Pukekohe, which is an absolute jewel for growing vegetables, we should be protecting it and pushing the houses somewhere else.

CORIN Are you worried that with the new Government’s focus on Kiwi Build, on lifting the urban boundary in Auckland, taking away some of those restrictions, that you are going to come under more pressure?

MIKE No. What we want to do is work with the Government and say, ‘Look, let’s plant the houses where the houses can go, and let’s keep vegetables growing where they grow best.

CORIN What about the issue too, I suppose, of workers? Because you’re presumably going to find it harder for them to live near where they’re working as those house prices go up and it gets more difficult to live.

MIKE That is a really big problem, because as the prices go up, as the city spreads, what happens is people can’t afford to own houses and work in our gardens.

CORIN What’s the outcome here if we don’t change and get what you want, which is some sort of a policy – food security policy. Are you worried that we will just simply end up importing vegetables from China?

MIKE So the first step is we need to look at the country as a whole. It’s got to be holistic. At different times of the year, different parts of the country feed the country. So you need a national view, not a regional council by regional council view, but a national view that says, ‘Right, we know Pukekohe’s going to be important in spring. We know other parts of the country are going to be important later in the year. What we need to do is protect those parts so we can feed New Zealand. Because if we don’t, we’ll be increasing our imports – fresh, nutritious locally grown food will not be available, and at the moment, we don’t have counrty of origin labelling, so the consumers won’t know where they’re buying their food from. It could be from anywhere in the world.

CORIN So what happens here? What do you want? I mean, you want literally a law on food security?

MIKE No, it’s quite simple, what we want. We want the government to sit down with us, work out where the important growing areas are, and then regional plan and council plan by council plan, protect those areas for growing for the future so we can feed the country.

CORIN What about the impact of the climate? Is the other thing I’m interested in. We’ve seen a very wet winter, haven’t we? And that’s had an impact, we know, on potatoes and other fresh lettuces and things.


CORIN Is this climate change? And is this something you think’s going to get worse?

MIKE Look, it’s hard to know whether it’s climate change or not, but the importance of spreading your grain operations out across the country mitigates against any climate change that may come, mitigates against adverse weather events. For example, Southland hasn’t had as wet a spring as the rest of the country. It’s been able to supply parsnips and potatoes and carrots through to the North Island. But if you don’t have your operations spread throughout the country, you can’t deal with climate change events; you can’t deal with adverse weather, but you still got to protect the land that is good for growing. Only 5% of this country is good for growing horticulture. We’re saying, ‘Don’t plant houses there.’

CORIN It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because we’re a food-exporting nation—

MIKE True.

CORIN …and I think people think of us as the land of milk and honey and that food isn’t an issue. Are you fighting a bit of an uphill PR battle because of that perception?

MIKE Yes, we are, and I think people just assume we can feed the country. You know, some of our produce gets exported in large volumes – you know, kiwifruit, apples, for example, onions, but a lot of our produce doesn’t get exported in large volumes, and that’s some of the normal vegetables we eat every day. And it’s not about export; it’s about feeding our own people. We don’t want to have to rely on an overseas country to supply our food, our vegetables for New Zealanders. It’s just crazy if we go there.

CORIN What about prices? Can we expect, if this trend continues, to see prices continue to rise for the good stuff – the fresh, you know, Brussels sprouts of whatever it is you need to eat?

MIKE Yes, it’s all about supply and demand, and provided there’s sufficient supply, the prices will always be reasonable. If you start bringing in imports, of course, you lose price control. Then the exporter from the overseas country sets the price. So you’ve always got to have New Zealand produce there to keep the price competition alive.

CORIN What about the supermarkets? Are they giving you a fair deal?

MIKE Yes, they are.

CORIN I mean, they presumably—are they on board with this idea of the food security strategy?

MIKE Well, they themselves have to source food from all round the country.

CORIN What do they care, though? They want it the cheapest, don’t they?

MIKE No, they’re after quality too, and they are very concerned that they can get New Zealand’s supply, because both supermarket chains do label their fresh fruit and vegetables with New Zealand, and so consumers want to know where their vegetables are coming from, and they want to know it’s fresh and locally grown. So the supermarkets have the problem also of trying to source around the country, and when, you know, you have extremely bad weather conditions, like we’ve had, that’s really difficult, and that’s when the imports start to come in.

CORIN So what’s the first thing you want done? What would be the first step towards this food security policy?

MIKE For us to sit down with the government, to work together with the government, identify the areas which we need to protect and then, with the government, work out how we do that.

CORIN Why do you think that hasn’t happened?

MIKE I don’t think people have been really aware of this problem. It’s been a view that – ‘Oh, yes, we’ve got plenty of, you know, commercial gardens. We can feed ourselves,’ and we’ve brought this, you know, issue to the attention of the government last year; we made it part of our election manifesto and campaign, and we’re thrilled that the new government is paying attention to it, and we’re really looking forward to working with them to solve it.

CORIN Mike Chapman, thank you very much for your time; appreciate it.

MIKE Thank you.

Please find attached the full transcript and the link to the interview

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