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Re-food by Emily King. (Image: Archi Banal)
Re-food by Emily King. (Image: Archi Banal)

KaiJuly 4, 2023

Transparency, traceability and the tangled story of where our food comes from

Re-food by Emily King. (Image: Archi Banal)
Re-food by Emily King. (Image: Archi Banal)

In Re-food, Emily King unpacks the challenges we face with soils, waterways, climate change, food waste, packaging, unhealthy diets and a lack of access to food, and advocates for a food systems approach to Aotearoa’s ‘broken’ food networks. This is an edited excerpt.

You’re standing in front of an open chiller at the big store about to splash out on some salmon. In front of you are shiny blue and silver packets with different logos and pictures of fish, vacuum packed, hanging there smoked, seasoned and ready to eat. You scan the rows. At first glance they all look similar, salmon is its rich pink colour, packets looking like a fancy fish packet should: designed with the high-end consumer in mind, someone with little time, who wants to just rip open the packet, put it on the plate and be ready to serve a delicious and nutritious dinner for themselves. That’s you. You want that. You umm and ahh about it and then ultimately check the price per kilogram, notice a bright yellow sticker on a few of them that announce they are “on special” and think “that sounds good” and select that one.

Little did you know, you’ve bought northern hemisphere Atlantic salmon farmed in Denmark that’s been sent to Aotearoa New Zealand. Next to that was also Norwegian fish, and two types of Aotearoa New Zealand-raised King salmon. This happens to you all the time. You look at the packet of organic goat feta and feel good about the price, and the concept, only to get home and discover it’s Bulgarian organic goat feta. How did I end up with Bulgarian goat feta? Same with your pork chops; they’re Danish. And so on, until there’s only a few things left in your trolley that you know are made locally, like your bread, but that’s made from imported and local ingredients, whatever that means…

Environmental lawyer turned food systems advocate Emily King and the cover of Re-food. (Images: Supplied)

In one trip to the big store, you’ve ended up with a bunch of products that are the result of a myriad of choices and marketing influences, and stories, made with foods grown in other countries by people you’ll never meet, packaged by companies you’ll never hear of or understand and transported by ships you’ll never see. None of these things will be helpful for you to get to terms with the environmental or social footprint of what you’re consuming.

We have labelling regulations for fruit, vegetables, meat and some fish. Where the fruit and vegetables are grown, where the meat is raised, or where the fish is harvested or caught must be stated. This is literally the low hanging fruit – labelling the simple foods because, well, frankly the food system is complex, and the supply chain is fraught with hurdles. That’s a start, but doesn’t cover rice, pasta, dairy, preserved or processed fruit and vegetables (like those in tomato sauce). 

So, why don’t we label where all our food is coming from? Because the food chain is now so complicated, and the ingredients so mixed, with food makers not following their supply chain closely enough, that it’s almost impossible to tell. The more complicated and processed the food, the harder it will be to trace or understand what’s in it, and how it was grown, or where it was made. Food sourcing is rarely simple, and labelling can be misleading, so you need to have an eagle-eye on what you’re buying to try and get your head around the ingredients.

There are origin labelling regulations for fruit, vegetables, meat and some fish. But that doesn’t cover rice, pasta, dairy, preserved or processed fruit and vegetables. (Image: Getty)

Food marketers are trying to get you to make a split-second decision in the big store or online, and packaging is their window into your world. It’s where brands get to tell you their story – and for some that’s explaining growing and farming practices, or whether it’s vegan, or gluten-free, or halal, cage-free, free-range, grass-fed, climate neutral, climate positive, permeate-free, single-origin, made in Kirikiriroa/Hamilton, the list goes on and on. Some products self-label, so that is a matter of trust in the brand and what they are telling you. Other brands tell you things like ‘No sulphites added’ so that you inherently do not trust their competition (without said label, using sulphites). But packaging is as much about marketing as it is information.

If a label says, “Grown in New Zealand” or “Produce of New Zealand”, then it must be grown from scratch here. And you can be an optimist and at best expect it is complying with Aotearoa New Zealand laws around health and safety, the environment and workers, or you can be a cynic and at worst use your imagination of how things are processed and discharged to the environment.

If it’s labelled “Made in New Zealand”, it will be made by a manufacturer or processor here using whatever ingredients it takes. Now, your can of Te Matau-a-Māui/Hawke’s Bay-grown peaches might be labelled that way, but the sugar preserving it will likely be Caribbean (hence the fine print saying “local and imported ingredients”). You won’t know what farm the product comes from, and you won’t know exactly what those practices are around fertiliser application, water use or land management unless the farmer or grower is able to label it accordingly.

Locally grown vegetables for sale at the Matakana Famers Market in Matakana October 11, 2008. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Labelling transparency is often easier for growers because they usually are packing their own produce, which is why you sometimes see carrots with rubber bands on them explaining that ‘Steve’ picked them for you in Invercargill. But as I’ve said, all milk gets flushed through the same plant, and meat through the same processor. After that, it could’ve been anyone’s.

What we need is a thriving and transparent market for sustainably produced food and in order to get there we need to ensure that labels are honest and accredited. Independent industry labels like Fairtrade (for fair trade products), Organic Farm NZ, BioGro New Zealand Ltd or AsureQuality (for organics), Hua Parakore (Māori organics framework) or Demeter (for biodynamics) are third-party accredited for independence. These gather information about the farm or company and its products then make the company go through an audit of its practices, auditing not only soil and water use, but also animal welfare, its stance on genetically modified organisms, and pesticide and herbicide usage. Some organic certification schemes use “community” endorsements, meaning a group of farmers or growers in the sector needs to see and understand the practices on your farm in order to verify them. The idea is that you’re more likely to be held to account by a group of discerning neighbours or fellow farmers than you are by an agent you hardly know.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, if it’s not labelled organic or biodynamic, then it’s most likely conventional agriculture applying either or all synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or insecticides to the plants grown and the land. It’s most likely that regeneratively farmed or grown products will not be labelled yet unless it’s a meat or dairy brand gone out on its own to distinguish itself from the rest. Remember, conventionally grown foods are under no obligation to label themselves that way; the onus or burden of proof is on the organic or biodynamic or regeneratively grown food to use that label to distinguish itself from conventional food.

Beef cattle at a farm in North Canterbury
Regeneratively farmed meat or dairy will not be labelled unless a company has gone out on its own to distinguish itself from the rest. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Chris Morrison is a long-standing proponent of organics and has worked tirelessly through his businesses and behind the scenes to grow and improve the sector in our country. He explained to me that, in 2021, organic-regenerative (as certified from the Rodale Institute, say) is considered the ‘gold standard’ for soil and land use practice. It usually begins with an organic farm that then transitions to regenerative. He notes that many farms already practice this, but the difference is that regenerative agriculture, at the moment, is not regulated or certified. For regenerative farmers, this is not the point, but for certifiers and a sector that has been bruised continuously for not having certification, this is one way to give certainty to customers.

Organics prides itself on certification as the explanation and justification for certain soil practices. This always seems to be the wrong way round to me: the farmers and growers that commit to a set of practices that have soil health, animal health and human health at the fore of what they do, without pesticides, herbicides or insecticides, need to pay to be certified to tell the consumers this is the way they operate. Signs in big food stores will point out where organics is, a luxury or special section, while the rest of the store does not explain any of the other practices that are going on in the thousands of other products being sold. Aotearoa New Zealand has been a laggard on regulation and only recently, have we had legislation put to Parliament to have compulsory regulation to bring our organics in line with international best practice.

What Chris is saying is that not all organic farmers will use regenerative techniques and not all regenerative farmers will use organic techniques (some, for example, still use small amounts of pesticides or, in the case of farmers outside of Aotearoa New Zealand, GM seed). But isn’t this confusing for people buying food? 

I asked Distinguished Professor Dr Caroline Saunders – consumer behaviour researcher on ethical, environmental and social purchases – about labelling and different types of land use practices like regenerative agriculture. Overall, people buying food don’t know what regenerative agriculture is yet, she explains but it’s certainly a term to keep an eye on and it seems to be gaining more and more traction. 

What is clear, however, from her research is that people are willing to pay for more environmentally and socially sound products (remember the lamb shipped to the UK?). There is a value proposition. But, she says, what we need to ensure is a value chain where those returns are fairly distributed back to the farmer and grower. And there are a lot of links in the chain. At the moment we are sitting on the farm gate, the animal or plant is doing its thing, growing in a healthy and wholesome way. Next it’s off to the processors and the manufacturing departments. From there it could be anywhere. Caroline explains that the value that is added through that processing increases the price of it for consumers but it’s the processors and the sellers that make money off of the product usually, not the farmer or grower. 

And if a product is not grown in Aotearoa New Zealand, you won’t really have a clue what the practices are or what country the ingredients comes from. A lot of the time the product will have multiple ingredients from multiple countries – there is no label saying the sugar is grown in Australia, the soy in Indonesia, the vegetables in Europe. Some food businesses, however, are working hard in their supply chain to understand the processes and practices of the businesses they are sourcing from abroad. This extra work is important and needs to be recognised.

Re-food: Exploring the troubled food system of Aotearoa New Zealand by Emily King (Mary Egan Publishing, $45) is out now. See for more information.

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