Nyesha Arrington, Ash Heeger and Analiese Gregory help Monique Fiso pull up the hangi (Photo: Amber-Jayne Bain)

Why New Zealand needs a national food strategy

What we eat defines our economy, our health, our environment and our culture. That’s why we need a plan for the future of our food systems, writes Angela Clifford, CEO at Eat New Zealand.  

Eating is the action we do more than anything else. We spend tens of thousands of dollars on food each year. The way we grow and harvest the food we eat ultimately determines how we use our land and oceans, and our impact on our natural environment. Our access to good quality food determines our health, and what we eat defines our cultural and social selves and communities. 

For something so essential to the wealth and health of New Zealand, it’s hard to believe that we have no national strategy, no design for what we eat and no plan that outlines what we consider to be important as a food nation. This is even more surprising when you consider we are hugely reliant on food to generate our wealth as a country.

Eating is undoubtedly the most political thing we do on a daily basis, and every single meal supports or detracts from a certain type of food system. When restaurants were closed during Covid-19 alert level four and we were forced to only shop at supermarkets, we had an effect on everything from our pork farmers to our egg farmers. Our fishers tied up their boats and many of our small scale vegetable growers without direct markets had to destroy paddocks of leafy greens. Food waste was off the charts but it wasn’t able to be diverted to food banks, even when they were experiencing huge increases in demand.

Despite there being plenty of flour in the country there were no bags to put it in, and small producers hustled to find their eaters directly in their communities. Despite these seismic shifts, at no point was there a roadmap designed to guide us to what was important in this chaos. 

My job enables me to see our food and the way it intersects our lives at a detailed level; from production, through transformation, hospitality, experience and celebration. It’s all connected. If we have a healthy relationship with our food providers we make better decisions for ourselves. If we value our food here at home through experience and celebration we believe it’s worth more internationally. If we understand that we’re just a single species on an incredible planet, we would grow and catch our food with more respect and empathy for the natural world.

It’s only when we silo and departmentalise our role as farmers, scientists, health providers, storytellers and eaters that we miss the bigger picture. But when there’s no one presenting the bigger picture it makes it easy to miss. A national food strategy would help provide that perspective, creating a roadmap to a vision for New Zealanders as providers and eaters. It would help define the relationship between food and our economy, our environment and our national identity. It would be used in schools and in boardrooms.  

Strawberry picking (Photo: Getty Images)

A national food strategy for Aotearoa would start with what was here first: an understanding of the natural limits created by our geography, geology and climate. Trees, birds and fish were how we began. It wasn’t an easy place to find food, particularly on Te Wai Pounamu. But Māori developed incredible skills and understanding about our wild food, and how to get it through practices such as Mahinga Kai (or Mahika Kai). From this came rich language for place names indicating likely weather conditions or what could be found there. If we want to start to understand the bigger picture then we must respect and understand our indigenous and first relationships with our food. 

As immigration from other parts of the world began, our food landscape changed and pasture predominated. It impacted everything from our natural systems to our connection to the rest of the world. We became an exporting nation; our meat, milk and wool defined how the rest of the world saw us and traded with us. Our rich oceans provided fish that became a global delicacy. We were an abundant colony, able to deliver food back to the motherland during tough times such as the world wars.

But the landscape is changing. A push for infinite growth on a finite planet has led to some introspection on the way we grow and deliver food to the rest of the world and ourselves. Science and technology promote solutions to problems that, in some cases, it created in the first place. But we can’t deny the opportunity that better understanding presents us through things like precision agriculture. 

This increased awareness has the potential to deliver better outcomes for us as eaters. There have been huge leaps in understanding the connection between mental illness and the food we eat. We have some of the worst food-related illnesses in the world, such as obesity, yet promote ourselves as producing some of the healthiest food in the world. 

If nothing else, a national food strategy should address and fix how we feed ourselves. We must ensure our own people have access to and understanding of the best possible food. And this must be an absolute priority.

A national food strategy is a complicated commission to undertake. Its designers have to be cognizant of the breadth and depth of landscape and communities that need to be represented. How do we keep everyone accountable to this eventual strategy? What role does a three-year cycle of government have to play? How much is this upon us as food citizens to lead the way? 

Every single one of us is a food citizen of Aotearoa. If we’re to have a plan we should have the opportunity to have a say in what that plan looks like. If we can better understand our food environment in all it’s nuanced, detailed, beautiful glory, we have the chance to improve our nation’s health, prosperity, wellness and connection to our natural world and each other.

This content was created in paid partnership with Freedom Farms. Learn more about our partnerships here

The potential of a National Food Strategy will be discussed at FoodHui 2020. Tickets and more info here.



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.