Fixing a broken food system through Restorative Food

2 December 2014

SBN’s Transformation Leader Emily Dowding-Smith explains the NZ food system, its paradoxes and issues, and what we can do to help fix it.

The food system is complex and affects everyone in society. Food is cultural, seasonal, and the foundations for what we live upon. For many it is a way to earn a living, whether that is growing produce, farming animals, packing boxes, boning meat in a factory, or selling items in a supermarket or café. 

The food system is also global and interconnected across countries, economies, and cultures. For a lot of people it now means an expectation of access to goods all year round, despite being a sensitive, climatic, geographic and seasonal industry. An overnight hailstorm can destroy a year’s crop and income for a fruit grower, a drought can cause scarcity and force prices up, a health scare in a product line can turn consumers off and destroy a producer and retailer. Yet consumers have come to expect food on demand and until relatively recently have not cared about its traceability.  

Paradoxes of the food system

It is a huge and encompassing system fraught with paradoxes: too much food is produced and therefore wasted, yet starving people go without; the poorest parts of society have limited access to food and live in “food deserts”, but are often the most obese and unhealthy; local growers are unable to compete price wise with imported vegetables from overseas, therefore can’t afford to sell their produce in New Zealand supermarkets; expanding cities increase urban demand for food, but poor planning regulations mean the best soils in city hinterlands are often built upon. And so it goes on. 

When we step back and look at these interconnections, we can see that there are parts of the food system that are working, but also parts that are seemingly broken and need addressing.

Global connections

Today, what we eat and where it comes from connects us to distant places and societies, but we often are unaware of our food’s origins. Beans grown in Kenya can be in a UK supermarket within hours and provide an income to farmers dependent on growing such commodities. Traceability is a key issue in a globalised system, particularly when it comes to health scares or outbreaks of food poisoning of disease, for example bean sprouts in Hamburg or lettuce fields in Northland. 

Our globalised food system has led to a centralisation of power amongst a few large companies. For example, four grain traders alone account for 90% of the world’s grain trade: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. Further, in the current food system, unhealthy commodities are often highly profitable because of their low production cost, long shelf-life, and high retail value.

The New Zealand food system

For New Zealand, where more than 90% of our meat and dairy is exported, our economy and culture is dependent on foreign markets and speculation on how those consumers will respond for the foreseeable future. We dominate the world export of dairy. Currently most of our dairy products (mainly dry milk powder) are exported to China. 

More than 60% of New Zealand’s income is from the rural sector, yet nearly 90% of our population lives in urban areas. In the countryside, farms have been amalgamated and while we still have a lot of sheep; dairy cow dominates. The land use changes and intensification to increase efficiencies in the dairy system have led to flow-on environmental impacts, affecting our soils, waterways, lakes, oceans, mahinga kai and kai moana. 

While our food export scene is dominated by agricultural goods, there is still a diverse and emerging set of businesses outside of dried dairy products that are growing with innovative models for the food system. 

Simultaneously, our domestic food scene is comprised of multiple smaller systems. Each region in Aotearoa is different: culturally, economically, geographically and climatically. Certain regions have a unique food image or characteristic, based on these factors. Urban centres differ; what works for Auckland is distinct from Dunedin or Wellington. The same goes for rural areas: what’s grown and produced in Taranaki differs to Central Otago and so on. Therefore, the New Zealand food system is comprised of sub-systems, all of which are unique and have strengths, weaknesses and challenges. Speaking to and learning from actors across this system indicates that there is room for change as well as diversity and innovative approaches that each region or city-region food system can learn from.  

Community-based approaches to the food system

At a grass roots level, many district health boards and local governments are involved in community-based approaches to address challenges with the food system. There is a need for better policy and guidance on food systems and a nationwide network of city-region food alliances. 

Food policy in local government is absent in Aotearoa, but there is a growing movement of food champions in the community, local government and district health sectors who are aiming to bring actors together to address this (e.g Kai Auckland).  Things are slowly starting to move in the food policy realm but there is an absence of a national-led strategy on food policy that reflects the different elements and actors in this large field. 

Health, safety, nutrition, access and affordability all sit across the food system and, depending on the organisation, are prioritised in different ways. Public health arguments for healthier diets containing less sugar and leading to less obesity and diabetes are compelling. Social and community based projects, led by not for profits and local councils, calling for better access to affordable food for low income or no income families are growing. 

Food insecurity

20% of New Zealanders are classified as food insecure, which means they lack access to safe, affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food. Responses to this are popping up, with breakfast clubs and milk in schools initiatives attempting to address food security issues. But do these address the systemic changes that are needed? How do we shift the food system so that healthy foods are affordable? How do we educate people on how to cook their own food in a world of quick fix, fast food alternatives? How can we help start-up businesses addressing these issues to get a better place in the market?  

Food often sits in a wider basket of income, poverty and welfare issues and is indicative of a wider failure in society. It is compelling and sad to realise that 17% of kids in Aotearoa have material hardship, that is, they go without. They go to bed hungry. Food also has a social stigma and issues associated with blame and also shame. It is not easy to ask for help and often statistics on food, hunger and welfare under represent the true picture, for this very reason. 

Actors in the food system

In addition to these problems of access and affordability, there is a somewhat ad hoc group of smaller actors in the food system, largely sitting on the margins. These include smaller growers of produce, smaller family farms, and makers and purveyors of higher value items from dairy, fruits, nuts, oils and grains. Often these smaller individuals or businesses have a focus on health, less refined ingredients and also values aligned with sustainable agricultural practices and/or organics.    

They are up against the giants in trying to get their produce to markets, with a form of supermarket duopoly in New Zealand: Progressive Enterprises a part of Australian Woolworths Limited, owns Countdown and is also the franchisor of the Super Value and Fresh Choice supermarkets, and New Zealand’s Foodstuffs owning Pak’n’Save, Four Square and New World, whose grocers operate as franchisees. Requirements for health and safety and protocols mean it can be difficult for those starting out to access markets.  Growing popularity with farmers markets is one way to help these smaller cooks, makers and foodies, but there are also solutions needed that go deeper than just access to markets. 

Sustainable Business Network

Here at the Sustainable Business Network we’re trying to help find solutions to the challenges in the food system, from production, manufacturing, distribution, access and eating through to waste. We’re bringing together actors to collaborate from different sectors of the food system, who might not ordinarily work together. The shifts that are needed are big and pressing and we can’t do it alone. Innovative and creative business and social solutions are needed to help restore New Zealand’s food system. No one organisation or company can do this alone but together we can combine to help create a food system that takes into account health, wellbeing, people, and the environment in making a more conscious shift towards better food that is better for Aotearoa. 

Emily Dowding-Smith leads the Sustainable Business Network’s work-stream on Restorative Food. She’s happy to be contacted about the programme. Please email questions to emily@sustainable.org.nz

This article was first published in Auckland Branch Dieticians NZ newsletter, November 2014