Paul Charman: Building over our best land? It's a recipe for starvation

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Auckland is rapidly expanding due to the increased demand for housing. Photo / Martin Sykes
Auckland is rapidly expanding due to the increased demand for housing. Photo / Martin Sykes

The motorscapers are ripping up elite soils which have grown vegetables just south of Auckland City for decades.

Officially, it's just a few hundred hectares here and there, something to take a little heat out of the city's housing crisis.

In my view it's a slippery slope - a trend likely to damage Auckland's food security long term.

Pukekohe's elite Class 1 and 2 soils are in the top 5 per cent of New Zealand growing land.

Depending upon the season, our city depends on this area for its onions, leafy greens, potatoes and carrots.

It's said that there's no obvious alternative areas to cover the same quality and scale of vegetable production for Auckland.

Growing further south has issues with frost, while further north there's more risk of disease.

Other land could feed us, possibly, but that's unlikely to be at the same quality and price.
Will this happen - Yes, I think it will.

Tens of thousands of homes are planned for the city's southern urban boundary over the next 30 years, and they've already swallowed much of Pukekohe's best growing land.

Much recent subdivision was authorised under the old Franklin Council's watch. Under its Unitary Plan, Auckland Council is seeking to safeguard the best growing land which remains.

But legal challenges, pressure from rising land values, rising-rates and newly-arrived block owners - many of them hostile to growers - are taking their toll.

Those in the know say subdivision is always possible, if you have a good lawyer.

Auckland needs additional housing, every day we're told this and I'm sure it's true.

So build over the dead clay soils west and north of our city.

Sacrifice the former kauri land which grows far less food.

Or, Auckland councillors could grow a spine and encourage elegant three-storey dwellings in the city's inner suburbs.

They must not preside over the destruction of Pukekohe Hill and adjoining growing areas, said to be among the most productive in the world.

To me the long term consequences look serious.

Hungry child crying

To invoke a famous 1930s newspaper cartoon, "I seem to hear a hungry child crying".

It's an echo from our future, the sound parents scrabbling to find decent produce to feed their kids.

If that sounds too emotive, tough.

A city witnessing the partial destruction of its food supply should be an emotive issue.

Look up "Housing vs Horticulture", an excellent recent documentary on National Radio.

This pointed out that there is no conservation movement tasked with educating the public on the value of New Zealand's prime soils.

Townies seem to imagine an abundant supply of farmland out there, all of it suitable for raising high quality produce.

But the best and most productive land is actually limited.

By and large Aucklanders have no clue regarding the sophistication and ingenuity required to feed them on the scale required.

Nor do they grasp the uniqueness of soils such as Pukekohe and adjacent areas of South of Auckland, which primarily enable this.

Knowingly or not, supermarket chains Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises have encouraged this indifference.

In my view these big retailers have kept the returns for growing fresh produce artificially low, thus helping to foster the notion that it is a commodity of only little worth and importance.

Also blame the politicians who line-up on the side of the big money.

These are shrillest voices calling for Auckland Council to release more land for subdivision on the city fringes.

But sacrificing our best soils, merely to increase the area of one of the world's most sprawled-out cities, is an absurd idea.

If only they could rattle to their feet, the skeletons which lie in the ruins of many ancient cities could attest to this.

For the Mayans, Indus Valley dwellers and Easter Islanders and many others - the bigger and more grandly they built, eventually the harder they fell.

All it took was a few hundred years of knocking up temples, statues and pyramids - at the expense of shelter belts, irrigation channels etc.

No doubt all these once efficient crop-producers had no inkling that food shortages would eventually overtake and destroy them.

I my view, though it takes 50, 100 or 200 years, misappropriating our best land merely to build new housing suburbs makes exactly the same mistake.

And in that case, the only winner will be the guy who rides the black horse and carries the big scales.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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