When Pukekohe floods, shoppers everywhere feel it in veggie shortages and higher prices. Liv Sisson explains the flow-on effects on our food system.
There’s been a ton of flood news. And within it, a ton of flood food news. Supermarkets were submerged. A cow washed ashore at KFC. Firefighters were not served at Maccas. And while Wayne dealt with drongos, community groups delivered emergency kai, and onions went viral on TikTok.
In one video, which now has over 384,000 views, brown bulbs bob along a rainy road – onions forced out of their underground dens, washed clean out of the fields by the deluge. These alliums are ominous. They seem to be staring our food system in the face and pointing out that this wild weather’s impact will hardly be ring-fenced to one geographical area.
On the food front, the flood’s flow-on effects will be worth watching. Especially when you consider that 26% of our domestic vege production happens in Pukekohe, in an area measuring just 40 square kilometres. So, what all has happened on the food front since the flood? What can we take away from it, and what comes next?
What happened to those viral onions?
The TikTok onions probably floated out to sea. Any remaining in the fields must be discarded if they’ve been in contact with floodwaters. As United Fresh New Zealand noted, floodwaters can run through sewer systems, and across farm land, picking up animal waste, human waste, and other pathogens. Crop losses have been huge.
What happened to the submerged supermarket food?
The supermarket stockpiling of 2020 had its own end-of-days vibe. Videos of shoppers pushing trolleys through waist-deep water felt even eerier. On the back of the floods, Foodstuffs donated $137k worth of undamaged product to food banks. Food banks, it’s worth noting, were already seeing unprecedented demand while supermarkets pocketed an estimated $430 million in excess profit last year. Supermarket items that did get wet were likely discarded because, again, contamination.
What do destroyed crops mean for growers?
As Brit Stembridge from Tomtit Farm told me pre-flood, the summer growing season had already been tough up north. A late frost in October 2022 zapped the seedlings meant to supply today’s harvest. Re-sowing was required. Then relentless rain and cloud around Christmas meant veggie patches were flowering, but not pumping out nearly as much kai as they normally do this time of year – pollinators don’t fly in the rain.
This event, Stembridge mentioned, has essentially hammered growers all over again. Floods cause root rot, stem rot, nutrient deficiencies, and weakens plants making them vulnerable to diseases, like powdery mildew, and pests which thrive in damp conditions.
Is there still hope for tomatoes and home gardens?
Maybe a sliver. But as Stembridge told me, growers need hot sunny days soon to dry soils out. She has stripped the fruits off of her outdoor toms to free up their energy for recovery and placing new fruit. Home gardeners also need to be careful with produce that may have come in contact with floodwater. This guide to repairing your garden post-flood is now free to read.
Did those firefighters at Maccas manage to get a feed?
Yes. One Domino’s franchise owner in Tauranga made sure of it. Legend. Meanwhile, as Charlotte Muru-Lanning reported, wait times at her local Domino’s in Auckland exceeded four hours. “That people were still getting pizzas delivered and wondering why they took so long in what was fast turning into a state of emergency felt like a pure expression of the information void we experienced, and continue to experience in Auckland,” she wrote.
Where did emergency food relief come from?
As Muru-Lanning also reported, emergency food and information came first from iwi, marae, charities, schools. She received not only an informational text, but a kai parcel, from Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei – all before Auckland Emergency Management had even made a peep.
Are the floods impacting food shortages and prices?
Short answer, yes. Long answer, also yes. Onions and potato stocks were already tight, so those supply gaps seem likely to hang around. Other shortages may surface later. Shopping will likely require flexibility in-store. The egg shortage has unnervingly prepared us for this.
The cost of food here, meanwhile, went up 11.3% last year. Fruit and veg prices were the biggest driver of that increase. Prices looked like they might come down pre-flood but those hopes feel dashed. It’s probably too early to precisely measure how the floods have shifted price and supply. Anecdotally though, a kilo of loose tomatoes at my South Island Pak’nSave was $8.99 a week before the flood and $10.49 the week after. Expensive to expensive-er.
Twenty-six per cent of our domestic veg? Grown in one town?
Yes. Over a quarter of onshore veg production is packed into Pukekohe, which was badly hit in the floods. One image showed a heap of muddied onions on the corner of a subdivision there. Which seems to represent an interesting moment in time for our food system. One where we are rapidly consolidating where we grow kai while building houses over other areas that were once part of our agricultural food basket.
Alongside this, the number of growers in Aotearoa is shrinking, competition in our supermarket sector is stubbornly low and by most global standards, non-existent. Consolidation is occurring all over the place within our food system.
Is consolidation a bad idea?
At best, it’s risky. Our food system is a complex web, a fabric made up of millions of interactions and relationships between the earth, growers, sellers and eaters. Pukekohe represents a dominant node in the system. So do the supermarkets. When nodes become overly dominant, the system itself becomes less varied, more consolidated, and more fragile. In that setting, if one node falls, the likelihood that it will pull the entire system down with it increases.
Those TikTok onions help explain this. If we rely on Pukekohe for all or most of our onions, the supply is a sitting duck vulnerable to pests, diseases, floods. And if we rely on supermarkets as the dominant channel to connect us with onions, the price is vulnerable too. With prices poised to continue rising, it might be time to look into getting a produce box.
How can we avoid future folly?
On the food front the flood points out that we need a plan – ideally before disaster strikes. Relying on food banks, charities, schools and other bottom-of-the-cliff solutions to fill gaps created by the supermarket duopoly and food system consolidation, isn’t a long-term viable solution. And Kiwis deserve better. Way better. We need, as Eat New Zealand CEO Angela Clifford recently wrote, a national food security plan – a “fence at the top”.