Stormy weather and food supply

26 Feb 2018

 Damaged lettuce

Ex-Cyclone Gita was a very real reminder about how our food supply can be affected by the weather. Wellington’s main route north up the Kapiti coast was cut off for some time, and food had to be barged into Takaka, near Nelson. Horticulture in Riwaka was also badly damaged by the ex-cyclone. It’s a timely reminder of how Kaikoura was cut off after the 2016 earthquake and how, for many months, alternate routes had to be used to move food up and down the South Island.

Whether or not you are a climate change believer, it is clear to see that we are experiencing climatic events more frequently and on a more serious scale than usual. We are experiencing a tough growing season and that is totally due to the recent weather events.  If these events continue, there will be more stress placed on the country’s ability to feed itself. The evidence for this is in the New Zealand’s supermarket where there is short supply of our seasonal vegetables. One supermarket chain recently advised their customers that the supply of lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower was limited due to the recent bad weather.  The key growing areas are experiencing constant rain, high temperatures, and excessive humidity; perfect breeding conditions for fungal and bacterial infestations. Add that to rain damage to young plants and rots in the heads of broccoli, and it adds up to further limits on supplies of fresh vegetables.

Some thought, therefore, needs to go into how we can continue to feed New Zealand and manage these climatic events. Spreading our growing operations around the country is one answer, but that requires good roads and rail to transport the produce from where it is grown to where it is going to be eaten. Last winter, Auckland was getting produce supplied from Southland. During spring, when it is colder down south, Pukekohe supplies much of the country with its produce, as does Gisborne. We need a very good transportation and logistics network to be able to move food up and down the country. I think we need some serious contingency planning done so that, when areas of New Zealand are cut off by storm damage, our people can still be fed.

We also need growing operations to be spread around the country so, if one areas suffers damage, other areas can supplement the supply of produce. Here we are not just talking about storm damage, but also damage from unseasonal weather, and indeed other adverse events that can’t be easily foreseen. Plants need good growing conditions and growers need to be able to work their paddocks.  Last winter, the ground was so wet in many areas that it was impossible to get tractors into paddocks to work the soil. The soil itself was mostly unworkable due to it being completely water logged; plants cannot grow in these conditions.

A policy that deals with the need for infrastructure to move produce around, and recognises the need for food to be grown throughout New Zealand to make allowances for climatic events, is absolutely vital to the futures of our industry and our country. This is why Horticulture New Zealand is calling for a food security policy; so that our growers will always be able to feed our people.

- Mike Chapman, CEO