Comment: Covid-19 restrictions highlight how important food is. As food is also what New Zealand does best, we need national investment to enable us to do even better.

Queues at the supermarkets in Auckland show where our priorities lie: family and food.

When danger threatens, collect everybody you love and make sure that the cupboards are full. It's a primal instinct.

Despite the fact that the aisles stayed stocked (mostly) in the nationwide lockdown earlier this year and despite the reassurances from the government and supermarkets about plentiful supplies, the immediate reaction to the lockdown news was to rush to the shops and buy loo paper and flour... and whatever perishable foods were available.

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It is the perishables such as vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat and fish that are by definition less easy to store.

Although the dairy farms and supermarkets continued to operate during the nationwide lockdown, the vegetable and fruit growers and independent outlets were stymied. So were the independent butchers and seafood shops.

Food waste escalated at source, businesses struggled and in Auckland, where 60 per cent of fruit and vegetables are bought NOT at supermarkets but at independent outlets, families struggled as well.

Alert level 3 in Auckland this month has closed down the independent outlets again, and again, the families who are not generally supermarket shoppers have been hit.

At the same time all of New Zealand is experiencing the effects of the first lockdown through the price of fruit and vegetables in July – up almost 19 per cent in comparison with the previous year.

Part of the price increase in vegetables and fruit reflects bans of imports from Queensland, such as courgettes. Photo / File
Part of the price increase in vegetables and fruit reflects bans of imports from Queensland, such as courgettes. Photo / File

StatisticsNZ released the Food Price Index last week, reporting that in the year to July 2020, fruit and vegetable prices increased 18.6 per cent, whereas other components increased less than 2 per cent.

Part of the increase in vegetables and fruit prices reflected bans of imports such as courgettes and cucumbers from Queensland because of a plant virus and biosecurity concerns.

In New Zealand in winter, prices of many fruit and vegetables are higher than in other seasons, but an extra factor is short supply because of difficulties with harvest, sale and replanting the crops during lockdown. When supply doesn't meet demand, prices tend to increase.

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It is the bigger picture, based on shortages that the primary sector as a whole has been trying to present in the discussions about economy and environment. The more regulations around production, the more difficult it is to produce food (or anything) at a price that people think is reasonable.

Clothing provides an example discussed recently in the media.

House of Boom owner Joanna McLeod has had to defend her price of $60 for a T-shirt when they can be bought for a tenth of the price in some chain stores. The big factor is that her clothing is made by seamstresses being paid $24 an hour in Wellington, not NZ$149 a month in Bangladesh.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

Ben Kepes, owner of New Zealand's largest clothing maker Cactus Outdoor, has gone further, pointing out that behind the higher prices of locally made products are established labour standards, environmental standards and money that goes back into the local economy.

Kepes has said that producers and consumers need to be talking more about what New Zealand made means.

The same goes for New Zealand grown and the products that New Zealand exports.

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New Zealand food on the international market is competing with food from countries where subsidies are common and where, in some cases, environmental and welfare (human and animal) standards are lower.

This has parallels with imported cheap clothing and foods like pork products and canned tomatoes in New Zealand – they are cheaper because the standards of production overseas are not as high as those required here.

Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:

Few people disagree that the primary sector has a vital role in getting New Zealand through the Covid-created economic slump. It is the only sector bringing new money into the country. This makes the ability of the primary sector to create exports that are wanted by people overseas extremely important.

The government has expressed confidence for the future. The expectation is that an extra $44 billion in export earnings will be achievable in the next decade through growth in value… but this is contingent on people being able to afford what we produce.

Considerable investment is needed in scientific research, development and technology transfer in the primary sector, as well as education to create the scientists, rural professionals, farmers, growers and educators of the future to ensure continued growth.

In addition, a review of the regulations under which the primary sector is operating is needed to ensure that they are fit for purpose – that they will achieve what is intended.

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Any questions on why the primary sector should be treated preferentially can be answered simply – loo paper (trees) and flour (cereals). And the perishable products that make up the meal.

Food is important and it is what New Zealand does best. National investment is needed to enable it to do even better.

And in the meantime, any business that can meet the isolation standards and has the Covid App code could be allowed to function. This would reduce future problems not only with business viability but also with mental and physical welfare - family and food come first.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a soil scientist and a farmer-elected director for DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions are her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com.