ECONOMICS : The Case for a Food Security Strategy

The Clark Government has never been short of strategies and visions. We can be forgiven if we have forgotten some of them, such as the 26 April 2001 announcement by Prime Minister Helen Clark and State Services Minister Trevor Mallard of the Government’s e-government strategy. Titled [email protected], it followed the release the previous year of the e-government vision. To jog your memories, it set out plan to work towards New Zealand being world leader in e-government.
A few years later ministers were promoting the digital strategy.
Then there’s the New Zealand energy strategy, intended to set the country firmly on path towards clean, renewable energy. It drips with rich rhetorical references to sustainability and secure energy future. But business people have cause to be nervous, because it requires us to eschew readily available sources of power generation and take punt on wind power, tidal power and so on.
Clark mentioned raft of new strategies when she announced $33.75 million boost to the Market Development Assistance Scheme to coincide with the launch of Export Year. The Government was finalising revised tourism strategy for New Zealand, she said; it was reviewing government strategy to get more value out of international education opportunities; it was shaping trade strategy for New Zealand after the Doha round of trade negotiations is completed.
So why not food security strategy? At least partly, perhaps, it hasn’t caught on because it is championed by Green Party MP Sue Kedgley, chronic political irritant on food-related issues. Moreover, Kedgley includes rice in her plans for self-sufficiency. Yep, we know about global warming, but paddy fields on the Canterbury Plains?
Kedgley called for national food strategy to ensure security of supply in the face of “global shortages and out of control food prices”. New Zealand urgently needed food security strategy to put in place mechanisms to ensure we have sufficient food to survive interruptions in basic food commodities like wheat, corn and rice, she insisted.
Pushing the matter further in Parliament, she asked whether the country’s only food security strategy was at the National Crisis Management Centre, under the Beehive, which has cafeteria capable of catering for up to 100 people at time. It carries basic emergency food supplies. Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton replied on behalf of Civil Defence Minister Rick Barker, saying the Government did not have food security strategy because New Zealand produces many times more food than required to sustain domestic needs. There was no food security risk for New Zealand, he said, before scoffing: “I actually thought there was an obesity problem.” Anyway, the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management was working on plan to provide support and coordination for the food sector to ensure essential food supplies could be maintained to communities during emergencies.
Anderton brought statistics to bear on his posture: New Zealand’s wheat crop last year was the largest since 1976, at more than 340,000 tonnes (more than 80kgs for every person in the country); sweet corn production had been steadily climbing in recent years and was around 97,000 tonnes year (20kgs per person), of which about 25 percent was exported. And New Zealand did not produce rice.
Ah, but food security is about more than how much food is grown in New Zealand. It’s also about whether low-income families can afford to put healthy meals on the table. And Kedgley had clutch of statistics too: New Zealand imported 29,000 tonnes of cereals in 2006 and 2007. “Food security, no matter how much we may grow – such as Fonterra with their dairy – is matter of food affordability,” she insisted.
Paradoxically, the Greens are enthusiastic champions of biofuels, an idea that has caught on around the world. Trouble is, the rapid switch from growing crops for food to growing them for energy – encouraged in the United States by outlandish subsidies – is major cause of rocketing food prices. So is the demand for food in countries like India and China as their populations become wealthier.
Anderton rules out the need for strategy because he obviously believes New Zealand is wealthy enough to buy all the food it needs. Essentially, he is right. But some people in this country struggle to buy basic foods. If our incomes continue to decline relative to everybody else’s, and if China and India can afford to pay more for food than we can, within few generations we could be struggling to feed ourselves. The real issue is to develop strategy to ensure we don’t get into that position and to ensure our standard of living does not further decline.

Bob Edlin is leading economic commentator and Management’s regular economics columnist.

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