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a red graph background and some images of an apple, rice and milk with a guy in a suit squinting at a graph. a little humourous
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KaiMay 7, 2024

Seven graphs that show where New Zealand’s food comes from… and where it goes

a red graph background and some images of an apple, rice and milk with a guy in a suit squinting at a graph. a little humourous
Image: Tina Tiller

How what we produce and what we eat connects us to the world beyond our shores, visualised.

Walking around a supermarket or vege shop, it might be obvious that everything on the shelves came from somewhere. But you might be surprised by how much of the stuff you eat every day came from somewhere else.

While New Zealand’s agricultural sector produces heaps of food, much of our agricultural land is dedicated to pasture for cows, which produce the thousands of tonnes of milk that is exported in various forms from New Zealand each month, far more than the five million people who live on these islands could consume by themselves. 

Meanwhile, every day container ships dock at our ports, unloading the staples that make it to supermarket shelves, restaurants and cafes and, eventually, home kitchens. Using Statistics New Zealand’s Overseas Merchandise and Trade data sets, here are seven graphs that reveal how New Zealand’s food is shaped by the rest of the world. If you’ve eaten rice in the last week, had a sandwich or munched on a sugar-filled treat, then these graphs might give you a sense of just how far away that food has come from.  



For many New Zealand households, rice is a staple food. In 2023, New Zealand’s rice came from countries strongly associated with rice-eating, including Thailand, India, Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s perhaps a little more surprising to see that the second-biggest source of New Zealand’s rice was Australia; more than 13,000 tonnes came from across the ditch. Most of Australia’s rice is medium-grain varieties, like japonica. Meanwhile, beloved as risotto is, the arborio rice imported from Spain and Italy is only a tiny fraction of overall rice consumption, and is combined with 16 other countries (including Japan, Fiji and Bangladesh – the “everywhere else category”) just to be visible on the graph. Overall, New Zealand imported 57,366 tonnes of rice last year: that’s about 11kg on average per person. 


While Aotearoa’s rice has several major suppliers, the sources of sugar are much less diverse. Of the 217,076 tonnes of sugar imported last year, 63% of it came from Australia. Picture the sugar in your pantry, soft white crystals, and replace it in your mind’s eye with wide plantations of segmented sugarcane in the sunshine of Queensland. Sugarcane is a kind of grass, its stems stiff with water and sucrose. It’s shipped into New Zealand as raw sugar, with boats progressing under Auckland’s Harbour Bridge (its arch specially designed to make sure they fit) directly to the Chelsea Sugar Factory at Birkenhead. The other significant sources of New Zealand’s sugar are Thailand and Guatemala.


Bananas are one of the most frequently bought products in New Zealand supermarkets, and almost all of the bananas eaten in New Zealand are grown overseas – although some local growers are trying to change that. Most of New Zealand’s bananas come from Ecuador, the world’s biggest banana exporter. That dependence on largely one source could make us vulnerable to disruptions in supply of the beloved fruit. Ecuador mainly grows Cavendish bananas – the big, evenly curved kind many people here are used to, although there are dozens of varieties around the world. That means that a fungal disease, or other threats from climate change, could damage bananas grown as a monoculture. There are also major concerns about labour conditions in the banana plantations that supply New Zealand and the companies that run them, as this 2017 RNZ report about banana workers in the Philippines demonstrates. 


Another key staple is wheat. It’s mostly imported whole and milled into flour here, but Aotearoa also produces much of our own wheat – about 43% over the last decade. In the past, there were dozens of mills around New Zealand; we only started importing the grain in the mid-1990s.

That doesn't mean you'll easily find New Zealand-grown flour at your local supermarket, though. Local baking brand Edmonds held out as long as possible, but had to remove the “made from NZ wheat” tag from its packaging in 2022, saying that finding supplies of suitable New Zealand wheat wasn’t possible. Most of the wheat grown here is sold for animal feed.

With wheat supplies under pressure worldwide – Ukraine has been a major producer of wheat, although almost all of New Zealand’s comes from Australia – farmers have considered planting more wheat to feed both people and livestock. New Zealand’s soil works well for wheat, with the crop grown mainly in the South Island, but the heft of the dairy sector means that much of the wheat – and much of the arable land – is used for cows instead. 



During the Covid pandemic when our borders were shut, the kiwifruit industry's worker shortages were well publicised. This eventually led to a limited number of workers being allowed in without going through the MIQ system.  The lucrative kiwifruit industry largely depends on overseas workers, especially those on seasonal RSE visas who can face exploitation due to the way their visa depends on their work – a persistent problem. According to the New Zealand Horticulture Export Authority, kiwifruit are New Zealand’s biggest horticultural export by both volume and value, and the industry is keen to keep it that way; there’s been controversy in the past when trademarked Zespri varieties were being  counterfeited in China

Part of the reason workers are so needed is that the kiwifruit season, which starts in early autumn, is quite short, and the fruit need to be picked as quickly as possible to be sent around the world. This graph shows just how far kiwifruit travel – and how there are several months of the year where essentially no kiwifruit are exported at all. Import data shows that during those months, Italy is a source of kiwifruit sold at New Zealand supermarkets. 


Another of New Zealand’s valuable seasonal exports are apples, tremendous in their variety and volume alike. With fluctuations – last year saw a dip due to damage from Cyclone Gabrielle – the volume of apples produced has been roughly stable throughout the last two decades. However, the effort of the apple industry to develop new varieties is clearly paying off: in that same time, the overall value of the industry has risen significantly.


It’s difficult to overstate dairy's heft in New Zealand; despite our small size, we’re a major dairy exporter. The dairy sector uses lots of land and lots of energy; it also has huge political influence, and is a major contributor to New Zealand’s emissions and water pollution. At the same time, dairy exports are hugely valuable; a report published last year by the sector suggested that one in four export dollars come from dairy, and $11.3bn of New Zealand’s GDP comes from dairy farming and processing. The increase in New Zealand’s production of dairy since 1990, which has involved some major land use changes, is evident in this graph; milk heated, dried and turned into milk power is the main way that the product of land, water, sunshine and cows is sent across the sea. 

Notes about these graphs: some categories were amalgamated (ie brown rice and white rice were combined); some products were excluded (rice flour was not included in the flour category). To be consistent, this is all based on weight, rather than dollar value. In some cases food, like wheat, might have been used as animal feed as well as for humans. In some cases, very small amounts of imports were excluded from graphs, as they made it harder to read. Finally, except where otherwise noted as a time series, all data is from the 2023 calendar year.

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