The last person to handle a bag of cocaine is the buyer. To get there, it passes through a supply chain of dealers, cutters, importers, processors and growers. It’s the cutter and importer who make the most money – carrying the product from thousands of disconnected producers to thousands of disconnected customers. Their position as the funnel in the supply chain gives them power in both directions – raising prices or reducing quality for customers and loading risk onto producers.
The cocaine trade demonstrates why dominant-player economic systems struggle to deliver fairness across the chain. Sometimes, the invisible hand gives you the finger.
The Commerce Commission’s report into retail grocery acknowledges that some of these market dynamics are happening in our food system. Their proposed interventions – like collective producer agreements or clearer customer pricing – are designed to rebalance power to the edges of the system, or introduce competition into the funnel with another supermarket player.
But is it enough? While our grocers are shifting at pace towards lower-emissions, plastic-free and food re-distribution practices, now is the time to ask big questions about how we value food in society and whether the system needs tweaks, or an overhaul.
My grandma used to say that the best thing you can give a child is a strong skeleton. To her, healthy kai was on a par with a good education and healthcare. Was she wrong? Or is food indeed a foundational pillar for people and society? We defend quality public schooling, universal healthcare and police & fire coverage for all, because we believe these things are fundamental to the nation. We’ve designed these systems to sit outside the power dynamics of the market, because we expect them to deliver consistent, on-the-ground outcomes for citizens. These systems aren’t perfect, but most Kiwis are proud of them. As it stands, we don’t treat food the same way. If our education system suddenly flipped to look like our food system, 85% of our schools would be run by two for-profit organisations.
If we acknowledge that food is a pillar of society – alongside education, health and public safety – then we should ask if the current food system actually delivers good outcomes for Kiwis. It doesn’t, at least not for everyone. Twenty per cent of us live in food insecurity and we all pay over the odds for wholefoods. We are the third most obese nation in the world and 18 per cent of our national health bill is dietary related.
Our food system comes with a hidden environmental bill too. The University of Michigan estimates that the industrialised food system runs on a 13:1 energy ratio (US figures). For every calorie available to eat, 13 calories of energy are needed to grow, harvest, transport, process, package, transport, shelve, chill, transport, chill and cook – from farm to supermarket to household.
On-the- ground, this looks like produce that’s grown in Southland, shipped to central distribution in Christchurch and then shipped back down to retail in Southland. Outside of environmental costs, this raises serious issues around system resilience in the face of natural disasters or energy shortages.
If the goal is for fair food for all, the Commerce Commission shouldn’t simply tweak a failing model. Instead, tell us how we scale the alternative food systems already operating at the edges.
There are thousands of them. Like Happy Cow Milk, a farm-to-customer fresh milk community based around mobile pasteurisers, crowd-sourcing, ethical farming and plastic free distribution. Or Cultivate Christchurch, an urban farm in the red-zone supplying locals with fresh produce and closing the loop with local compost. There’s Freeman Farms, a New Plymouth family feeding locals from their average sized section. Or Common Unity Project in Lower Hutt, growing food to gather people together for community projects.
To redesign our food system for on-the-ground outcomes for citizens – invest in citizens. Don’t just add another supermarket to the funnel. Think bigger. What about leasing out government-owned urban and urban-fringe land, learning from local food pioneers and kickstarting thousands of small farm start-ups. Redesign a fresh food system centred around a farm in every neighbourhood and support existing farms to sell-direct. Imagine daily deliveries of affordable whole food, with scrap collections for the community compost. Or ‘contribute for kai’ schemes to ensure that everybody has dignified access to a healthy diet. Aim to design the funnel out of the system entirely, connecting producers and citizens together through low-emissions, simple, local, direct, community-led food.
Kiwis want this type of food system. Research from Our Land and Water National Science Challenge found that we see supporting farmers directly as the single biggest sustainable food action we can take – it’s just logistics and access that get in the way.
In short, we want a relationship with our farmer, not the supermarket.