In January 2016 when I started this role, I set myself a number of targets to achieve. One of them was to reach out through social media to people not involved in the business of growing fruit, berries and vegetables, to provide a commentary on issues that are important to horticulture. You can’t beat healthy local grown food that is of such high quality that it earns a premium in our export markets!
Growing the food we need to be maintain our health is only just coming into its own today. Covid has re-focused the world’s population on the importance of eating healthy food. Back here in New Zealand, the situation is no different. The potential for exponential growth of our fruit, berry and vegetable production is all too real. Reaching this potential is inhibited by a number of policy settings. New Zealanders and the world are demanding our produce.
Land, water, labour and biosecurity protections are the essential elements for growing food. Next there is the need to innovate, through new varieties and new growing methods that promote fresh water and climate adaptation. On a daily basis, we face a battle keeping highly productive land for growing, with houses being planted faster than vegetables.
Water is becoming a scare commodity in New Zealand, a country where 80% of the water that falls from the sky runs out to sea. Why aren’t councils and the Government spearheading much needed storage and capture initiatives? Perhaps there will be some action now that urban New Zealand is facing the water crisis?
The Government’s clamp down on temporary migrant labour and maintaining limitation of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Pacific labour scheme is directly inhibiting growth and horticulture’s ability to perform and feed people. Covid has taught us that keeping New Zealand protected from diseases and pathogens at the border is vital. But even with the borders locked down, new plant pests are getting onto New Zealand.
Then we come to research and development, followed by tech transfer to growers. We need this research to remain competitive in world markets, and to make our contributions to freshwater and climate adaptation. What is being researched and the funding for that research needs urgent re-prioritisation. On top of these challenges is the marked increase in compliance that is being imposed on growers and farmers.
With the competent and expert HortNZ team, I have spent the past five plus years working on each of these issues to improve the situation for growers and as a consequence, all of the rural sector. Our frustration is that often, progress is slow, much slower than it should be.
Another frustration is getting recognition of horticulture and its contribution to not only the economy – we are a NZ$7 billion industry – but also our support of rural communities and the health of the country. One of the HortNZ campaigns that I took over was making country of origin labelling a legal requirement in New Zealand. It is a legal requirement in all of our key export markets and has been for many years. This campaign started in the early 2000s and just under 20 years later, New Zealand will have legally required country of origin labelling.
It is for the above reasons that with the Ministry of Primary Industries, our horticulture family is working to create a unified approach to the development of policy across both Government and industry. We need to get onto the same team so that we can make a difference as quickly as possible. Improvement on policy changes taking twenty years would be a real improvement! The development of this unified approach is underway at present. We have to make this work because we face the challenges of today, the next challenges are already coming at us.
Massive investment from the world’s ultra-rich is going into food production and food system. Then years ago, investment into the food system was around US$0.5 billion. This year the investment is estimated to be US$20 to US$25 billion. The focus is on growing all the food that people need as close to where they live as possible, expanding the concept of vertical farming to include tree and root crops.
This is a direct challenge to our highly successful and valuable export programmes. I believe that there will always be a premium place for New Zealand food grown, but to maintain that place, Government and industry are going to have to work together to meet the challenges head on. That is where the development of a unified approach to strategy development comes in. It has an absolutely vital role to ensure New Zealand horticulture has a successful future.
In closing, I thank everyone involved in horticulture for their support, the HortNZ Board and staff for giving me the chance to make a contribution, and you the reader for reading what I have written.
This will not be my last blog, but it is my last blog as HortNZ’s Chief Executive. My successor, Nadine Tunley, takes over on 14 June. I am sure you will provide Nadine with the same level of support and encouragement that you have provided me. I will not however be lost to the sector as I am being retained for a while to support the industry on seasonal labour and the future of the RSE scheme. So I will be seeing you around, albeit in a different capacity.