We take for granted the bounty on offer at our supermarkets, but destructive cyclones and the hottest month in 150 years are turning attention to how long New Zealand can provide fresh food for its growing population. Tess Nichol investigates.

On the outskirts of Dargaville, Andre de Bruin has been growing kumara for the past two decades.

He produces 40 hectares of the purple tuber annually, but last year his yield was halved thanks to what de Bruin calls a "perfect storm" — drought followed by unseasonal amounts of rain right before harvest.

"We had drought drought drought, then bam, floods," he recalls.

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"We finished by getting 250mm of rain. 90mm of that landed in less than an hour and that just created a flash flood.

"A third of my crop was completely under water."

Like any farmer, de Bruin prepares for drought, he puts measures in place to protect his crops from heavy rain.

But our climate is changing. Niwa scientist Dr Sam Dean says temperatures will increase, bringing more frequent drought, particularly to the north and east of the North Island.

Kumara farmer Andre de Bruin prepares as well as he can for adverse weather, but last year his yield halved thanks to a
Kumara farmer Andre de Bruin prepares as well as he can for adverse weather, but last year his yield halved thanks to a "perfect storm" of drought followed by heavy rain.

Most of the past 10 summer have seen above-average temperatures, Dean says, and this January was New Zealand's hottest month in the past 150 years.

A warmer climate also means when droughts hit they'll be drier and longer.

The number of ex-tropical cyclones passing over New Zealand won't necessarily rise, but when we are hit with storms they will stronger and more damaging.

"The likelihood of flooding goes up, the likelihood of wind damage goes up. When these storms do happen they will be more intense."

• READ MORE: Explained: all you need to know about tropical cyclones
• READ MORE: Major NZ climate report: The five defining figures

In the face of such a future, how do we make sure Kiwi farmers can keep growing enough food to feed the country, let alone produce enough crops to meet export demands?

A modern supermarket is an embarrassment of riches.

Seasonal or not, you never think twice about popping a tray of juicy red tomatoes in your trolley, selected from shelves that never seem to go bare.

Until they do.

Last April two cyclones smashed their way through New Zealand, drenching growing areas in the North Island at a crucial time in the season and destroying swathes of crops.

Seedlings which weren't washed away entirely by ex-tropical cyclones Cook and Debbie struggled to grow in the swampy mud, choking supply and driving up prices.

Signs from May 2017 in the Victoria park New World in Auckland, notifying customers of a leafy greens shortage following bad weather. Photo / Tess Nichol
Signs from May 2017 in the Victoria park New World in Auckland, notifying customers of a leafy greens shortage following bad weather. Photo / Tess Nichol

For weeks, leafy greens were scarcely seen on shelves, replaced with apologies written on A4, promising salads could soon be served again.

Spinach was off the menu entirely and in May iceberg lettuce, that cheap sandwich filler, was spied in one Auckland supermarket for a heart-stopping $7 a head.

And lettuce wasn't the only vegetable reaching outrageous prices.

Fresh produce became so expensive a group of doctors co-signed a letter in November's New Zealand Medical Journal saying low income families couldn't afford them.

Last December, pumpkin, a pantry staple, was the most expensive it had ever been, reaching an average of $5.78/kg according to Statistics New Zealand's food price index: 231 per cent more expensive than it was the same time in 2016.

Kumara shot over the $8/kilo mark in May and kept climbing, hitting a high of $8.99/kg in November, nearly double the price they'd been the year before.

And price jumps earlier this year saw greens like broccoli as much as quadruple thanks to "unprecedented" humidity in the growing season, while cauliflower prices jumped to as much as $10 a head in early March.

Broccoli prices as much as quadrupled thanks to unprecedented humidity during the growing season.
Broccoli prices as much as quadrupled thanks to unprecedented humidity during the growing season.

The economic principle of supply and demand is reflected in these prices; put simply, not enough crops were growing to meet our demand for fresh produce.

Alarm bells over the extinction of the ubiquitous Cavendish banana, whose monocultural strain puts it at risk of disease, have been ringing for several years.

Though rumours of the banana's death have so far turned out to be greatly exaggerated, they've been joined more recently by warning cries that our days of flat whites and Whittakers are coming to an end.

Clickbait headlines are perhaps overstating the issue, but combined with a growing population it's entirely probable climate change could cause major deficits relative to global demand as soon as 2050.

In a 2014 Oxfam warned the impact of climate change was already threatening food production in its report Hot and Hungry.

It was possible global warming could set back the global fight against hunger by decades, with our international food production system ill equipped to cope with change.

There could be 25 million more malnourished children under the age of five in 2050, compared with a world without climate change, the report says.

Crop like kiwifruit may need to move further south in coming decades as New Zealand's climate warms. Photo / Paul Taylor
Crop like kiwifruit may need to move further south in coming decades as New Zealand's climate warms. Photo / Paul Taylor

Domestically, Kiwifruit are a crop sensitive to climate, like coffee and chocolate.

The Bay of Plenty is where most kiwifruit are grown now, but by 2050 farmers may find they need to move further south as the area becomes too warm to produce a decent yield.

But if crops have nowhere to move, then one option for adaptability has been lost.

As food becomes scarce, the most basic economic principle of supply and demand pushes prices higher.

Those hit first and hardest are Kiwis on benefits or working low-wage jobs.

Massey University PhD candidate Rebekah Graham says whatever effect climate change has on food production, it will make an existing problem even worse.

A Herald investigation in September last year found malnutrition meant about 120 children a year were in hospital because of nutritional deficiencies and anaemia, compared to an average 10 years ago of 60.

There's no buffer to protect low-income families from unpredictable price spikes of fresh produce staples, says Graham, who researches food insecurity.

If fresh food is too expensive, people replace it with cheap but unhealthy food, like instant noodles and dollar loaves of white bread.

When fruit and vegetable prices go up, those on the lowest incomes are hit hardest.
When fruit and vegetable prices go up, those on the lowest incomes are hit hardest.

Without intervention, the situation for our most vulnerable citizens is only going to get worse, as fresh food becomes more frequently priced out of reach.

"It just feels overwhelming. It feels like there's this massive problem in New Zealand with people not having enough to eat, and it's not their fault," Graham says.

Horticulture New Zealand believes the issue is so pressing, they're lobbying the Government to adopt a domestic food security policy.

We import very little of our fresh produce and most of what is grown in New Zealand is consumed here.

Horticulture NZ has identified 10 staple vegetables in New Zealand including carrots, onions, potatoes and kumara, and found just 0.1 per cent were imported.

In a report compiled late last year and sent to several ministers, the industry body warns the long-held assumption in New Zealand that we are a land of plenty may not be true for much longer.

With houses already encroaching on fertile soil, we urgently need to fence off what's left for food production, says CEO Mike Chapman.

Urban development in Pukekohe is already encroaching on fertile growing soil. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Urban development in Pukekohe is already encroaching on fertile growing soil. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

At the moment about 5.5 per cent of land is suitable for crops, of which about 1 per cent is currently being used.

If we can secure what's left of that remaining 4.5 per cent, Chapman reckons New Zealand has a much better chance of staving off the growth-stunting effects of climate change.
This is partly because diversity will be key in our battle against the weather.

Currently 97 per cent of the country's kumara is grown in Northland, meaning supply is heavily reliant on good weather in one specific part of the country.

"But if that vegetable is grown in many locations across New Zealand then the chance of us being able to sustain bad growing conditions in one region but still supply the country the vegetables is greatly increased," Chapman says.

"Flood, cold wet weather, drought — you can sustain everything."

We need to get serious about water storage and irrigation and plan for the future before it's too late, Chapman says.

Conversations about irrigation and how we use our water can be tense, but he believes the issue is misunderstood.

New Zealand gets a lot of rain, but not necessarily where its needed for growing and not always at the right time.

Consents to build dams and water reservoirs will be essential to catch excess rainwater in a downpour and save it for when it's needed.

Horticulture NZ boss Mike Chapman says the Government needs to adopt a domestic food security policy. Photo / John Borren
Horticulture NZ boss Mike Chapman says the Government needs to adopt a domestic food security policy. Photo / John Borren

Channels to move water around are necessary too.

"Water storage will have to be a way for the future for New Zealand to survive, because we are going to experience drier weather, and it seems we are going to experience more extremes of climate and more storms, more cold periods."

Distinguished Massey professor and fellow Laureate Paul Moughan backs the move toward forming a formal food security policy.

"With a rapidly growing world population and shrinking resources food and water supply are going to become major global issues, and by definition an issue for New Zealand."

Sustainable food production is something we're not getting right at the moment, but it's essential we figure out how to feed the country without eroding New Zealand's soil, polluting waterways and increasing our greenhouse gas emissions.

"There are no simple quick fixes, and often to produce optimal sustainable production systems will involve trade offs not only nationally but also between countries globally.

"One thing for sure is that there will need to be a greater level of understanding in the general population as to what constitutes a healthy diet and lifestyle."

A flooded paddock after Hawke's Bay got a soaking from the remnants of former cyclone Debbie in early 2017. Photo / Paul Taylor
A flooded paddock after Hawke's Bay got a soaking from the remnants of former cyclone Debbie in early 2017. Photo / Paul Taylor

The Government says the issue is on its radar.

Increasing food production while reducing emissions is a global challenge requiring research and innovation, Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor says.

"The Government has recently passed the 100-day mark and during that time I've met with many industry groups and my door is always open for a robust discussion.

"I especially welcome industry solutions around developing a pathway to deliver higher value primary production in a sustainable way across NZ agribusiness."

Climate Change Minister James Shaw says "significant work" is going into understanding the impacts of extreme weather events on food production and quality water supply.

"Water storage will be part of a wider work programme across government portfolios and in conjunction with public consultation.

"The proposed climate change adaptation risk assessment will allow us to better understand threats to food supply alongside other hazards and issues relating to climate change, and that understanding will help formulate action plans."

Shaw says specific work relating to a domestic food security policy isn't under way in his portfolio, but domestic food security is an issue to be incorporated in climate change adaptation in conjunction with his ministerial colleagues.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw says
Climate Change Minister James Shaw says "significant work" is going into understanding the impacts of extreme weather events on food production. Photo / Dean Purcell

The situation New Zealand finds itself in is a serious one, but it's not without some silver linings.

New Zealand sits 41 degrees south of the equator, a latitude which lends itself to cool climates, giving us more wiggle room when it comes to warming.

Victoria University Wellington climate change lecturer Kelli Archie says two of climate change's biggest impacts, rising temperatures and increased carbon in the atmosphere, could actually increase some crop yields.

"New Zealand is, at least compared to the rest of the world, actually in a pretty good position," she says.

Countries and continents already struggling with food insecurity, like Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of South America, will face dwindling yields on their domestic harvests.

This means Kiwi farmers could actually find themselves in a stronger position in the international market, Archie says.

However the higher prices fetched overseas would see similar price spikes here, meaning the average New Zealander would be no better off.

And, after a certain point, temperature rises and carbon build up will start to decrease crop yields here too.

Drought will become more frequent with climate change, and warmer temperatures will eventually mean lower yields for crops.
Drought will become more frequent with climate change, and warmer temperatures will eventually mean lower yields for crops.

Archie says it's almost impossible to put time frames on this, but, as an example, kiwifruit orchards may need to start moving steadily south by about 2070.

Archie echoes Dean's predictions at Niwa, saying the East Coast will become drier and drought stricken regions will be hit with greater intensity.

New Zealand is a wet country, but the wettest areas aren't good for growing so the question was how to get water to where it was needed.

"Droughts we know are going to happen and we should be doing a better job of planning for water shortages ahead of time," Archie says.

Investment in aquifers is needed, and the Government has to act quickly to both future-proof food production and reduce emissions.

"The time to start was yesterday, and we haven't."

Kumara is an example of a crop which will benefit from a warmer climate — but with de Bruin's crops planted on a river flat, rising sea levels threaten the farm's future long term.

Like Archie and Chapman, de Bruin emphasises the need for water storage, and a "grown up" conversation about irrigation.

People, usually those living in urban areas, often lump pollution and irrigation together, but that's not fair, de Bruin says.

"Towns need water, people need water, animals need water and horticulture crops need water.

"It's about good stewardship of water and the land. I support well thought through irrigation schemes."

Farmers can adapt, like they always have, but without Government support there's only so much they can do he says.

He supports Horticulture NZ's push for a food security policy.

"People from rich countries who haven't gone hungry don't tend to see the importance of food security. If you've ever starved, you know."