The future of food business in New Zealand

28 April 2015

Restorative Food Transformation leader Emily Dowding-Smith, from SBN, considers current trends that will influence the future of food in New Zealand, a key theme of the Good Food Forum.

Soil, waterways and don’t forget the oceans

The role of soil in the future of food business is vital and just last week we wrote about the need to care for soil. In addition, the future health of our waterways also links in to the future growth of our food system. Without healthy waterways to grow, wash and prepare our food, we won’t have a healthy food system or a high standard of export quality food.

Part of the work we are doing in the Restorative arm of SBN’s work, for example through the Million Metres Streams project, is highlighting the need to restore the quality of our waterways and soil to ensure we have improved ecosystem health to sustain our communities and, in turn, businesses that rely on them.

An often overlooked part of our economy, particularly that of food, is the reliance we have on oceans and our fisheries. A recent report from WWF, Reviving the Ocean Economy, puts the value of oceans at $24 trillion with the annual goods and services of global foods from oceans estimated at $2.5 trillion. The corollary of this is the New Zealand marine environment, estimated to be worth $403 billion. In an eight point action plan, marine protection, sustainable fisheries and climate change are key areas highlighted by WWF in the report.

Food businesses not only rely directly on the quality and state of soil and water to survive, they are also heavily dependent on international markets.  When we talk about the future of food, New Zealand’s food system cannot be severed from the global context in which it sits. Essentially we are a part of an intricate and interconnected global food system that connects our food businesses and their supply chains, links us to trading in other countries and allows our country to grow and expand.

Climate change

Our produce is good quality, plentiful and delicious. It is highly regarded internationally for its fresh taste, mainly because we are fortunate that we live in a temperate clime with plentiful rainfall in many areas and warm enough soils to grow produce. New Zealand will, however, feel the impacts of climate change on the environment in coming years, with increased frequencies of extreme weather events set to occur, wet areas predicted to get wetter, dry areas more prone to drought and water scarcity.

The global impacts of climatic changes will hit our food system harder, particularly where there are countries affected that we rely on for our own produce. For example, many of our grains are grown in Australia, in parts that are prone to drought and reliant on scarce water supplies. Despite being relatively close, a bad season for a grain that we rely on for our flour or other staples could, for example, see a price hike or a shortage of a core commodity.

Food waste

Currently one third of the world’s food is wasted and this is more than a waste of food. It’s a waste of the soil, water, energy (embedded and direct) and resources that are put into the production, distribution, selling and purchasing of that food. Although money exchanges hands regardless of the loss, we cannot continue to operate with such an inefficient and wasteful system. The irony of this is that nearly a billion people go to bed at night with calorific deficits and a billion more are nutrient deficient.

In New Zealand terms, we have one in five Kiwis with food insecurity and one in five kids in poverty. It is often said that there is plenty of food and that it is the distribution that needs sorting out; often this is cited in particular times of famine and hunger. In our country, there is enough food to go around; it is simply that healthy and nutrient-rich food is unattainable to people through price.

Ironically, we are currently sitting in a period of the lowest global food prices, comparatively, over recent history. Globally, as we are interconnected and cannot be severed from the international food markets, we are therefore sitting on a tipping point. We cannot sustain 30 per cent food waste and we cannot sustain the increased amount of hunger that comes with a rising population. We’re on track for an extra two billion people by 2050 with fewer resources to feed them.

The added constraint to this is that we are now living as an increasingly urbanised society. In the past we may have been able to survive times of famine and hunger through patches of food price hikes, but that was when we lived in rural societies and could grow produce and make do. Experts on the future of food suggest that in an ever more urban setting, such price hikes would lead to civil uprisings and societal disruptions on a scale that we haven’t seen in the past.

What can businesses do?

We need to consider our role as New Zealand businesses on the future of food. My reflection on these global trends is that essentially we should start with our own country, ensuring that we have access to healthy food in all communities. That’s one of the reasons we are launching a National Good Food Network later this year to work with organisations across the country that have such a mandate. Once we’ve ensured that we are feeding our own people, we need to address food waste and other challenges like soil and water health.

When we feel confident that we’re looking after our own people and land, then we should ask ourselves, how can our businesses export and grow in a way that is addressing these issues?  Understanding the supply chain, traceability and transparency is key to ensuring that issues related to people, water, soil, growers’ working conditions and animals’ living conditions are addressed. Consumers need to step in here and demand with their supermarket trolleys that these are the things they care about, ensuring that the sellers of products label and clearly state where food comes from and what’s inside it. Businesses need to respond to these consumers and act in order to get ahead.

What sort of future can we create?

The future of food is one where stories of food are clear and have integrity. It’s a food system with strong stories of provenance, rich in taste and history that recognises the cultural connection of mana whenua to kai. It’s a future where we have enough fresh water to grow, wash, prepare and eat food, and healthy oceans and nutrient-rich soil to nourish the food system through growing healthy crops, produce and animals. It’s a future where our goods are sold in stores abroad with integrity and a secure and healthy supply, sustained by healthy waterways and soils. It is also a future where we don’t waste food, and where we ensure that prices are affordable for healthy produce, like vegetables and fruits so that all people have the chance to access healthy food.  

Excitingly, it’s a future where we use technology to solve some of the challenges around affordability, access and, the flip side, waste. It’s a future where the supermarket comes to you with deliveries and you close the loop with zero waste and a circular food economy. It’s a restored food system that businesses are proud to be a part of, where nourishing people and communities moves to the fore and people demand better products and provenance.

Emily Dowding-Smith, Transformation Leader – Restorative, Sustainable Business Network

The future of food business in New Zealand is one of the themes of the Good Food Forum, which will be held in Auckland on 25th May 2015.