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April 30, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Just Food

Finding food for future generations.

“On your way to work, you pass a small pond… a child is splashing about in the pond”, ethicist Peter Singer begins, retelling his famous thought experiment (if you know it, bear with me). You realise the child is drowning, and ‘wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy… What should you do?’ Singer uses this no-brainer to confront us with the suggestion that we’re all accessories to numerous ‘drownings’ each time we go shopping. Our supermarkets are all asplash with underpaid workers, endangered orangutans, caged hens and waterways sacrificed for fickle stomachs.

Yet if you ask cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, supermarket purchasing has become an overloaded activity. Advertisers know that we don’t neglect our consciences, and appeal to them constantly:

“You don’t just buy coffee… you buy your redemption from being only a consumerist. You do something for the environment, you do something to help starving children in Guatemala, you do something to restore the sense of community here, and so on.”

So perhaps the problem we really face is which submersion to prevent first. The underpaid worker, the caged hen, paltry bank balance, sustainable local business, the economy’s backbone, its carbon footprint, algal rivers, overfished seas, disappearing bees, our own good health. A responsible choice is hard to make if your conscience resembles the world in a food fight.

One cause could be considered the encapsulation of all of these competing goods and interests: the need for New Zealand children to have sustainable access to locally produced nutrition. I can’t find a compelling argument against striving for that, so let’s see if we can beeline through Singer’s pond to fish this one out. It will require us to consider policy, purchasing— and beware of algal bloom. Up and down Aotearoa, dairy waste pollutes waterways with nitrogen, phosphorous and faecal bacteria (in 2010 it was reported that our dairy industry also accounts for half our greenhouse gas emissions and consumes a quarter of the world’s production of palm kernel extract).

Perhaps then, supporting small dairy cooperatives and local farmers’ markets would be a good start. If you agree, you’ll be interested in our Food Safety Minister’s proposed ‘updates’ to the Food Bill. They aim “to achieve safety and suitability of all food for sale” through more centralised regulation of small scale food trading. The amendments will require anyone wishing to, for example, sell homemade jam at a market or supply surplus plums to a local dairy to register with a fee and Food Safety Plans, or apply for exemption.

They will be subject to inspection by designated Food Safety Officers (rather than local authorities—an additional ‘update’ also enables homes to be searched).

he rationale is that food products make up 50 per cent of New Zealand’s exports, and according to the Minister, “a domestic food regulatory regime is the basis for exports.” The regulations are not intended for backyard and neighbourhood food growing and swapping, but the cost and red tape will present a major disincentive to small, local growers wishing to supply local businesses and consumers such as yourself. The bill is shrouded in rhetoric about minimising health and safety risks, but is attempting to protect the status of all food items as commodities really in the interest of public health?

Public health is after all an urgent interest: a 2009 OECD study ranked New Zealand as third to bottom for child health, along with Mexico and Turkey. Something tells me this statistic has little to do with excessive unregulated trading of fresh, locally grown produce. It might however be influenced by our status as the only country in the developed world taxing fruit and vegetables. In a nation suffering from epidemics of child diabetes and obesity, sensible moves in the interest of public health might entail removing GST from fruit and vegetables and encouraging the easy movement of fresh food within communities. Over-regulation to protect revenue from food production seems less clearly helpful.

Consider that this Food Bill is coming from the same Government that reintroduced junk food and sugary soft drinks into schools. The initial removal was legislation in the interests of public health—protecting children from aforementioned diabetes and obesity epidemics as well as the associated strain on our health system. When that legislation was revoked, Anne Tolley stated her opposition to the “confusing” red tape and top-down policing of what she said were domestic decisions. A change of tune now: confusing, top-down overregulation of trade in food seems not, anymore, to be such a big problem.

Another factor in our child obesity epidemic: New Zealand children on their way to and from school are major sponsors of the fast food industry, according to Canterbury University studies. These revealed that fast-food outlets are 5.5 times more likely to be clustered around schools than other areas—so the Secondary Principals’ Association (SPANZ) is now appealing for restrictions on what these outlets can sell during certain hours. They are also three times more likely to be in poorer areas than rich (poor areas had 24.5 fast-food and convenience stores per 1000 pupils within 800 metres of a school, compared with 9.7 in richer areas). The children targeted thus, are the same children affected by the GST on fruit and veges; the over 80,000 New Zealand children reported in 2007 as not getting breakfast before school each day. Welcome to the poverty trap.

Ironically, this commodified food industry also churns out a major global food surplus. Last year, a UN study confirmed that roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — is lost or goes to waste. Wellingtonian Robyn Langlands initiated Kaibosh to address this situation at home. Kaibosh is New Zealand’s first ‘food rescue’ business, with a mission to ‘see a Wellington where no food good enough to eat goes to waste’ and match food surplus with need and hunger. Kaibosh picks up about 700 kilos of surplus food per week – mainly from small businesses like Wishbone, Bunnings Cafe, Simply Paris, Bordeaux Bakery as well as the Newtown and harbourside markets. The logistics of managing food safety regulation largely prevents them from receiving goods from supermarkets, and Kaibosh advocates the inclusion of a ‘Good Samaritan’ clause in the Food Bill.

The food industry surplus, fast food and its target markets, GST on fruit and vegetables, the environmental impact of our dairy industry, the Food Bill. All these influence the capacity for us to provide New Zealand children with easy and sustainable access to locally grown nutrition. How we choose to address the situation through our consumer decisions is up to us as individuals. Collectively, let’s make sure our legislation supports the health of our kids. It’s not that complicated. It’s just food.

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