Lindy Nelson says now is the time to come together to form a national food strategy and shape the future of New Zealand.

Belonging is a fundamental human need. When this need is not met, it is hard to feel a sense of purpose. Right now, farmers and food producers are starting to feel they belong again; they have a clear sense of purpose – to feed the nation and deliver economic stability.

The things that have threatened to divide urban and rural New Zealand – water, environment, reaching Carbon Zero – have faded for the time being as we have developed a more intimate awareness of our interdependence.

Food is vital for sustaining life. During the past few weeks, we have begun to realise just how much it shapes our sense of self, family and community and forms part of our cultural identity.

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For the first time ever, some of us have experienced food insecurity due to loss of income and jobs; we have a heightened awareness of how much it shapes and defines everything we do.

Farmers have understood and have flexed and adapted to retain and grow export markets. They have also responded to food-insecure New Zealanders in many ways, from supplying foodbanks directly to local initiatives like new charity Meat the Need, which links produce directly to consumers experiencing hardship.

A platform for conversations

This sense of being needed, of trust being built, of being together on a mission, has provided a platform for vital conversations about our future.

Conversations about, for example, how we work together to secure the food future we all want for our country, so that when we hit 2050 and we are experiencing the adverse effects of climate change, we will have achieved a food-secure nation.

Those conversations must be shaped by our shared values and our culture and must be able to deliver a national strategy that all New Zealanders understand, buy into and get behind.

Timing is everything; momentum can't be lost. It's somewhat ironic that 75 years ago we did exactly this at a time when we were emerging from war, death, loss of homes and jobs, fear, pain and food insecurity.

In New Zealand, returned soldiers were given balloted land to rebuild their lives, and were taught to farm. New Zealand had a food strategy; we knew what to produce and we had faith in farming to build prosperity for the nation. And it did.

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Threat will either divide or unite people – climate threat has divided us, Covid-19 has united us. Can we use this sense of belonging – of being one – to provide solutions for our future?

Lindy Nelson. Photo / Supplied
Lindy Nelson. Photo / Supplied

What should the strategy deliver?

What should a national food strategy deliver for us? Firstly, it should deal with food security, which is defined as the right of every New Zealander to have readily available, nutritionally adequate, safe and personally acceptable food.

This is as opposed to food insecurity: insufficient food, a limited diet, and anxiety about supply – relying on makeshift coping strategies such as foodbanks

The strategy should deliver the need for food to be produced within systems that are not only sustainable but also enhance and restore Papatūānuku (Mother Earth), water and carbon. It can't be separated from health, education, immigration, employment – these are all interlinked – but it must be removed from politics.

It needs a collaborative and open approach to engaging all those with an interest in shaping it. And in order for it to be truly effective, we must set aside our self-interests and biases.

The need for a citizens' assembly

Over the past eight months, I have been researching who is doing this well internationally, where they have got to and what processes they are using.

The process that resonates strongly with me is the idea of a citizens' assembly that allows for participatory democracy, reflects the body of people who will be affected by its outcomes, and allows for cross-party collaboration. This takes policymaking beyond the interference of political agendas,

Covid-19 delivered panic buying of flour, pasta, and toilet paper in a country that is a producer and exporter of those products. Imagine what food insecurity through unaddressed climate change impacts will do.

Can we use this experience, this sense of belonging, to come together now as one tribe, a team of five million with one purpose to shape the future of the nation? I think we can, and we must.

- Lindy Nelson holds the insignia of a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to agriculture and women.