Saturday, December 2, 2023

Food policy must go beyond soils

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Moves to ensure New Zealand has its own, affordable source of vegetables might become the first plank in a national food security policy.
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Horticulture NZ’s submission to the Government on the proposed national policy statement to protect high-value soils has gone a step further, suggesting NZ needs a food policy that considers supply, food security, national health and climate change.

The Government wants to ensure regional councils can prevent high-quality soils being built on or subdivided into unproductive lifestyle blocks. 

Estimates are Auckland alone has lost 10,500ha or about a third of its high-value volcanic soils to development in the past 25 years. 

Hort NZ’s 60-page submission said the 120,000ha of horticultural land is a finite resource needing good protection. 

It goes beyond simply seeking outright protection of valuable soils to say other factors including nutrient input, water use and council rates contribute to that soil’s potential and ultimately to the country’s ability to feed itself.

Hort NZ highlighted the risk productive soils will become limited by other Government policies, namely the national freshwater policy statement. 

It cites catchments with high nutrient losses where consent is required for any expansion of 10ha or more of irrigation. That is despite orchards and vegetables using a third the water of pastoral systems, emitting less greenhouse gases and having lower leaching levels while they generate the highest gross income per hectare of any land use.

Hort NZ says claimed lettuces could cost $5.50 apiece by 2043 if growers are restricted by Government policies on freshwater quality and nutrient losses.

The value of the soils in providing fresh, affordable produce vital for national health is also identified by Hort NZ as a reason for improved soil preservation and a broader policy on food security. 

It cites a survey done this year by Ministry of Health estimating almost 200,000 children live in food insecure households, with significantly lower intakes of valuable fruit and vegetables in their daily diets. 

About 80% of vegetables grown in NZ on the high-value soils are for domestic consumption.

Massey University agribusiness expert Professor Hamish Gow is also adamant high-value soils need protection.

“There is no doubt it’s one of the first things we need to do. 

“That could start by preventing any further lifestyle block development, of which this country has far too many.” 

Western Bay of Plenty, with a high proportion of valuable soils, has 10,000 rural lots, of which half are less than 1ha in size.

But on the bigger issue of a food policy and security of supply Gow said New Zealanders might have to accept this country will develop a two-tier food industry. 

One will be food production for high-end export markets demanding high-quality, certified provenance product while the other will be lower-value, probably supported by more imported food.

“You do have to consider what your comparative advantage in food production is. 

“Does it really sit with pork and poultry production. But part of the problem is industry regulations preventing imports of chicken. We only need to look at what happened to the price of pork when it was allowed to be imported and it was again back on consumers’ tables.”

Similarly, lower-priced frozen vegetables could be imported.

But Hort NZ chief executive Mike Chapman maintains a comprehensive, broader policy that takes account of all aspects affecting high-value growing areas would by default ensure NZ can continue to produce enough vegetables without relying on imports.

“After this NPS and consultation on the fresh water policy commercial growers want to engage Government on establishing a national standard for commercial vegetable growing.

“The problem we have had with regional councils is they have not appreciated how different vegetables are compared to pastoral production.

“Having such a policy would basically be the first plank in a national food security policy because it would ensure we can continue to grow all the vegetables we need to in NZ.”

No plans for food policy

The Government does not have plans for a formal food security policy, a spokeswoman for Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor says.

“Due to the high volume of food produced in New Zealand we do not consider there is an immediate threat to NZ’s food security or supply but this will need to be carefully managed in the future. 

“Many of the production issues that affect food security are being addressed.”

That includes $229 million in the Budget to support land users transition to lower emissions and improved environmental outcomes.

She said the Government does have a vision for the NZ food system to deliver sustainable and nutritious food accessible to all.

“Internationally, there are many member countries of the Paris Agreement for whom food supply is an immediate challenge today. NZ is not in that position.”

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