Warnings of an acute shortage of workers to harvest food crops in New Zealand are growing. But the problem – and potential solution – are more complex than they may seem, and give rise to the question: 'Is food too cheap?' Food Truth's Dr Helen Darling considers the issues.
Spring brings hope on the orchard; trees burst to life with blossom signalling a good crop, however, the usual horticultural fears of frost, rain and hail have been joined this year by a significant shortfall of orchard workers.
The situation is not new, but it is usually addressed by the influx of seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands. This year is different, of course, because closed borders mean fewer workers are now available. Commentators (and there have been many) claim orchard workers are paid too little, and Kiwis are too lazy to do the work. The reality, however, is that it is not that simple and it raises the rather interesting question of who is responsible for our end-to-end food system?
To convert a bare block of land into an orchard requires good soil, the right climate and access to water. Trees are purchased from a handful of nurseries (with variety and stock determined by who owns the rights to different plants), often a royalty fee is paid on the tree or the fruit yielded.
Trees require a robust irrigation system, a way to prevent bird damage, frost protection and inputs such as sprays to avoid rot or to improve tree health. The risk of catastrophic crop loss is carried by the orchardist across the entire year. Each tree is kept healthy throughout the year, pruned in winter, fruit is thinned in spring, picked in summer and then packed, stored and sold. Though the inputs occur throughout the year, revenue returns to the orchardist only after produce is sold (and, in the case of some exports, this can be delayed several weeks).
Clearly, getting a crop ready to be harvested comes with a significant financial outlay for the farmer or grower.
There is no doubt there are some "bad players" who do not provide good accommodation or a decent wage to staff but there are many in the horticultural industry who work hard all year to ensure there are fruit (and jobs) available. While it is easy to point the finger at the orchardist (best not to do it after they have been up all night frost-fighting when, in the space of a few hours, they can lose their entire crop), it is useful to ask what is the role of the consumer in maintaining a fair and balanced food system?
As consumers, we expect cherries will be available at Christmas. We expect these will be of high quality, plentiful and we would like it if they were cheap. We would also like it if every orchardist paid a living wage, provided comfortable accommodation, that the fruit was shipped as rapidly as possible, generating as little emissions as possible, was safe to consume, was undamaged and uniform looking. We would like to know every orchard had been GAP audited (or similar). And more than just wanting our cherries to be affordable, we would like them to be priced the same as we paid last year, and the year before, and the year before that.
In other words, are our expectations unrealistic when it comes to what we pay?
The way in which we value food is mysterious. As an example, if you look at the price of apples in New Zealand in April (peak harvest time) and compare them with a takeaway coffee, the takeaway coffee is consistently higher: over the past 10 years the price of a takeaway coffee was 50 per cent higher than a kilo of apples. Interestingly, both apples and coffee are considered beneficial in getting you going in the morning (but there are around 10 apples in a kilo compared with one coffee).
As consumers, where we spend our dollar has an impact on what food is available. Supermarkets don't stock shelves with things that don't sell and, conversely, we can't buy what supermarkets don't stock.
How much we are prepared to pay will also dictate what food is produced, where and how. Many years ago, I visited several coffee growers in Hawaii and asked about the coveted Kona coffee; the reason I was given for why it was six times more expensive than comparable beans was the cost of labour in Hawaii.
We are grappling with many conflicting issues – food insecurity is rising, Covid and adverse climate have compounded the number of people classified as acutely food insecure (now sitting at 270 million); data from New Zealand points to a rise here too. Many people either lack the resource to buy food or it is not available.
At the same time, food waste has increased (with this, in turn contributing to carbon emissions as food makes its way to landfill). Producers are struggling to produce food at prices that are competitive and sustainable. It is fair to ask – is food too cheap? Should we be paying what it actually costs to produce food, including the costs of offering a wage that workers see as equitable for their labour?
It seems that while we place the burden of keeping the food supply chain intact onto the farmer or grower; keeping it safe on the regulator or auditor; keeping selection and choice on the retailer or supermarket, we do so with the risk of undermining the impact of the role of the consumer.
We all own the food system but our personal level of "investment" (and therefore influence) is determined by multiple factors, not the least of which are our socioeconomic status and levels of food literacy.
The next time you're unhappy with the price of your produce, take a moment to consider its journey from soil to the supermarket shelf.
Helen Darling has a PhD in Public Health and has been working in food systems for some time. She is co-founder of FoodTruths.org, a New Zealand start-up that is reimagining food systems for the benefit of people and the planet.