Kiwi ingenuity in the future of food – Expert Reaction

How can New Zealand help to feed a growing global population, in a way that is healthy for people and the planet? 

Exploring how Kiwi innovation and ingenuity can make a difference to the global future of food is the focus for a one-day event, Feed Our Future, in Wellington on Wednesday next week.

Experts commented on a range of topics related to this question:

Dr Joanna (Jo) Fountain, Senior Lecturer, Department of Tourism Sport & Society, Lincoln University, comments:

“There has never been a more important time to consider the sustainability of New Zealand’s food systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities to rethink what we value, and to reimagine a more resilient future for New Zealand. Food – growing it, picking it, preparing it, and eating it – played an important role in many New Zealanders’ experience of the pandemic, highlighting both vulnerabilities in the food value chain, and the important and changing relationship we have with food

“A critical issue that will need to be addressed for sustainable food futures is the immediate and longer-term labour shortages impacting the primary sector, and the horticulture sector in particular. Due to the highly seasonal and physically-intensive nature of work, this sector has long been reliant on the Recognised Seasonal Employer workers, and others on working holiday visas, for harvest and pruning activity. Increasing labour costs and accommodation shortages, exacerbated by uncertainty over labour supply, are all factors threatening the long-term sustainability of these industries.

“On a more positive note, the experience of the global pandemic, and particularly lockdown, has also changed some people’s relationship with the food they consume, intensifying a wider movement towards the slow, the small and the local. While not downplaying the uncertainty and stress that lockdown caused, for many people this hiatus from normal life provided an opportunity to live more slowly: cooking meals from scratch, baking or preserving, growing one’s own food or supporting local food producers. There are reports of a huge surge of interest in home vegetable gardens, and greater support for small food producers. I recently conducted a survey of 500 New Zealand consumers and more than half of them reported that as a result of COVID-19 they were purchasing more food and drink made locally.

“Food experiences offer pathways to connect – to people, to heritage, to places. Food provides a context to learn – new skills, new flavours, new cultural understandings – and to pass on those skills to younger generations. Food foraging, and growing and catching our own food, can provide money-saving opportunities at a time of financial insecurity, but may also offer nostalgic experiences to share with children and grandchildren. Sharing a meal, or a drink, provides the context to socialise and connect to family, friends and local communities. A more sustainable food system means recognising the full value of food.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Nick Smith, Research Officer, Riddet Institute, and Professor Warren McNabb, Deputy Director of the Riddet Institute, Massey University, comment:

“How should we be producing food sustainably in 50 years’ time? And what does this mean we will end up eating? The food system is under increasing scrutiny as the world wrestles with feeding a growing population without compromising sustainability. Along with climate change, the future of food is a major challenge for the planet. The UN is holding a Food Systems Summit this year to bring governments, science and industry together to address this issue. Food is important, so everyone has an opinion.

“We must ensure that the global food system delivers sustainable and adequate nutrition to the entire population. No matter how environmentally or economically sustainable a food system is, if it does not provide nutrition to all, it is fundamentally unsustainable. The upcoming Riddet Institute event (9th June) has nutrition at its core, and will provide NZ decision-makers with the evidence needed to make decisions on our future food systems.

“What is NZ’s role in this conversation? NZ exports more than 90% of the food we produce. Our exports provide calcium to nourish more than 45 million people, protein for more than 20 million, and iron for more than 8 million. It is important that we think about the future sustainability of our food production systems, not just for our own population, but for the world.”

No conflict of interest. Dr Smith and Professor McNabb are based with the Riddet Insititute, co-host of the Feed Our Future event.

Dr Jocelyn Eason, General Manager Food Innovation, Plant & Food Research, comments:

“A lot of discussion has focussed on carbon-positive targets, mitigating the environmental effects of agriculture, and maintaining healthy soils. Waste reduction is also key and we certainly need to invest in the prevention of waste at all levels of the food chain.

“These issues are important but I think we also need to focus our conversation on sustainable nutrition, looking beyond the environmental metrics of food production to achieve volume and focusing more on the nutrients we produce.

“We are going to need to produce sustainable, nutrient-dense foods for the human diet that deliver more than just energy. This means increasing the dialogue around what is expected from future foods and improving the consumer’s knowledge and access to information. At the end of the day, the most important aspect of a sustainable food system for New Zealand is food security.

“We must produce food that is relevant, affordable, nutritious and accessible for New Zealanders and for export. Ensuring that all parts of our food system are optimal in terms of nutrition and sustainability is going to require an integrated approach based on science to support the decisions we make.”

Conflict of interest statement: Jocelyn leads the Food Innovation science portfolio at Plant & Food Research.

Dr Cristina Cleghorn, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, comments:

“The environmental sustainability of the foods we eat is a very topical issue with high public interest and new research in this area. This is for good reason; the global food system is responsible for up to 29% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. It has been suggested that climate change is this century’s greatest global health threat.

“The biggest area for emission reduction across the life-cycle of the food system in Aotearoa is within the farming and processing stage for ruminant-based products (e.g. beef and lamb). As New Zealand exports the majority of the food we produce we have the opportunity to lead the way in making these improvements and in diversifying our food system to include plant-based alternatives to these foods. A recent report commissioned by the Ministry for the Environment states ‘Globally, only the combination of production improvements, dietary shifts and reductions in food loss and waste will reduce the environmental impacts of food systems within safe thresholds, it will be important to consider what other measures beyond production improvements might also be needed in New Zealand.

“Research funded by Healthier Lives and led by myself, is investigating what a sustainable diet could look like for New Zealand. We are exploring what the health and climate co-benefits of consuming such a diet could be – and what acceptable and feasible policies could be implemented to shift population consumption towards a healthy and more sustainable diet.

“Sustainable diets, and climate-friendly diets specifically, tend to be high in unprocessed plant-based foods and low in animal-based foods. Shifts in diet away from processed foods and towards more vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruit are likely to have health and environmental co-benefits.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Ben Wooliscroft, Professor of Macromarketing, Department of Marketing, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“New Zealand has a food system that is focussed on producing tons of food (meat, dairy, fruit), not on producing high value, high quality, low environmental impact food. We need to shift.

“Consumers are increasingly expecting to see where their food comes from, how it has been grown or raised and what chemicals have been applied (or not). The value of the food we produce includes the values imbedded in its production. A commodity/volume focus doesn’t serve those needs.

“If we wish to have a sustainable food production system, that employs New Zealanders in meaningful jobs, contributes to the profile of New Zealand on the world stage, and provides a foundation for a strong economy, while protecting and/or enhancing New Zealand’s environment, we need to shift to high value food products supported by regenerative farming practices that protect the earth, the water and the animals and crops we grow. That shift needs to include transparency and traceability where places of food production are open to inspection, unafraid of review by citizens and consumers.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Nick Cradock-Henry, Senior Scientist, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, comments:

“There is a growing challenge for Aotearoa New Zealand to ensure national, regional, and local food security in the face of a complex array of interacting issues and threats. From the increasing pressure on highly-productive land due to urban and peri-urban expansion, ensuring adequate labour supply during critical periods in the food production cycle, as well as addressing the high-costs and barriers to entering the industry and long-lead times for developing necessary capability and capacity. Furthermore, as we have seen in recent days, there is a need to address critical vulnerabilities in supply chain networks – to ensure sufficient surge capacity and storage, in the event of a disaster or other disruption.

“Domestic food security is also part of a broader, national conversation, including Aotearoa-New Zealand’s role as a net exporter, and the place of the primary industries in the economy. Climate change will create new risks and opportunities, not only for New Zealand, but will deliver competitive advantages, create new demands on freshwater, and draw greater attention to sustainability practices and resilient value chains. To be resilient, there is a need to consider synergies and trade-offs, across the food systems; to address structural inequalities that may limit access to food, locally and regionally, among some of our most vulnerable communities; and to link action on climate change with risk reduction and broader discussion on outcomes for sustainability and wellbeing.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Sara Tolbert, School of Teacher Education, and Dr Diane Mollenkopf, UC Business School, University of Canterbury, comment:

“Sustainable food solutions will certainly require technical solutions to innovate new types of food and/or food production that minimize negative impacts on the environment, and even promote positive impact on the environment.

“But sustainable food is also a social problem of availability, access and equity. Even within the OECD, food insecurity is a growing problem that has been exacerbated by the global pandemic, and will be further exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

“Thus, food justice is a critical issue for communities and societies to address. A team of cross-disciplinary researchers associated with the research cluster on Community & Urban Resilience at the University of Canterbury has recently embarked on addressing urban food systems to engender equitable access to nutritious foods and building community resilience. Understanding how urban food insecurities occur and how they can be mitigated requires in-depth research at the community level. Several community-based research efforts are underway, and a Ph.D. student will shortly begin a programme of study addressing the intersection of public policy and community food resilience.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Kathryn Pavlovich, Director of Post Graduate Studies, Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship, Waikato Management School, University of Waikato, comments:

“The organising of food – production, distribution and access – is one of the pressing problems we are facing today and is particularly noticeable following the current disruption within our global supply chains.

“We need to ensure that our local communities have access to fresh, locally grown food.  How do we match those with an abundance of produce in backyard gardens with those who need food?

“How do we teach our young people to grow food?  How do we change our attitudes that our fruit must be perfect and shining as opposed to fresh and nutritious? How do we learn to grow and eat with the seasons rather than relying on significant amounts of unnecessary imported food?  These are questions that we face as we seek to develop our own regenerative and ecologically imbued food systems.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Ou Wang, Senior Lecturer in Agribusiness, University of Waikato,  comments:

“Adopting a plant-based diet is widely accepted as a sustainable, environment-friendly behaviour. Our recent research findings indicate obvious differences in how consumers in New Zealand and China adopt a more plant-based diet.

“First, a sense of entitlement and dependence attached to eating meat, and an awareness of animal welfare, among New Zealand consumers were more important determinants of adopting a more plant-based diet than their Chinese counterparts.

“Second, Chinese consumers are more likely to refuse a plant-based diet based on how important they perceive meat as a source of pleasure, compared to New Zealand consumers. They are also more likely than their NZ counterparts to control themselves by reducing meat intake. In China, a positive attitude towards plant-based eating is a much weaker predictor of the adoption of plant-based eating, compared with New Zealand.

“Finally, similarities between New Zealand and China include that individual obligation plays the most important role in reducing meat consumption in both countries, rather than peer pressure/social norm. In addition, environmental concerns have a positive impact, while health concerns had no significant impact, on the adoption of plant-based eating in the two countries.”

No conflict of interest.