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NZ is wasting its crops as a world food crisis looms

The IPCC’s latest report says that unchecked carbon emissions will lead to widespread food instability. So why are our labour laws causing crops to be left in the ground to rot?

Last week, the world’s leading climate-change scientists laid out how difficult it will be to feed the 10 billion people expected to populate the world by 2050. Yet here in New Zealand, we’re again looking at the prospect of wasting thousands of tonnes of food in the coming peak horticultural season.

It’s not just our land usage that has to change to meet the demands of population growth, but our needlessly inflexible imported-labour laws. Year after year, growers have to let crops rot in the ground and on the trees because they can’t get enough seasonal workers for the harvest.

Our efforts as a world-leading, clean, green, sustainable-food producer are in vain if we also get a global profile for wasting food. We’re coming to deserve the latter, as crop wastage has become chronic. Just to underline this perversity, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now says the world’s climate and population welfare depend ever more heavily on plant-based food production – and our Government has just introduced draft rules to protect prime food-producing land from councils and developers.

Our current rules governing seasonal labour importation ignore the fact that growers, like most businesses, must plan and invest in several-year cycles. The Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme can give them certainty on their future workforce only on a year-by-year basis.

The sector’s problem can’t be solved other than with imported labour. The work is physically demanding and low-paid, and with near-record employment, too few locals will do it.

Some employers could probably pay a little more, but their margins are pinched two ways. International price and freight fluctuations bring constraints on the export side, and domestic margins are extremely low thanks to the supermarket duopoly.

The RSE scheme has worked well in most of its 12 years, enabling guest workers, mainly from the Pacific, to take home significant savings – even enough to build houses and schools and buy needed infrastructure.

But in recent years, though more workers have been allowed in in total, the sector has still gone short of labour and had to dump crops.

Political sensitivity about immigration may be the tacit cause of stricter rule interpretations and apparent rationing of RSE ticks – along with the shame of a few prosecutions for underpaying and exploiting workers. But the net effect is that some growers will again be unable to get food to the market this season.

Months of predictions of shortages again this year have gone unheeded. One of our biggest strawberry growers faced closure this month, because, yet again, it was left short of the labour it needed. Last year, Perrys Berries had to discard a quarter of its crop, leading to national Christmas price hikes. It was unwilling to face worse losses this year after officials again declined its application for sufficient workers.

That decision was reversed after a TV report on the situation – a development that surely illustrates the system is now destructively unresponsive. Saying no, then yes when the public spotlight comes on, does not suggest that robust assessments are being done.

If officials believe a grower is wilfully falsifying its needs to save money on the payroll, then they need urgently to formulate a more timely way of assessing this – or devise ways to penalise the dishonest grower retrospectively.

That guest workers will very often work longer, and for lower wages, understandably makes for uncomfortable ethics.

But the wider picture is that a temporary migrant labour force, managed well and safeguarded, is a valuable form of foreign aid that also has immense economic benefit to this country.

In light of the IPCC’s report, it’s time our labour law erred much more on the side of optimising food production and less on suspecting growers of gaming the system.

We must continue to crack down hard on any exploitation, but we must also give the sector the labour surety to make long-term investment, including in accommodation for an adequate seasonal guest workforce. Our food production can’t expand without it.

This is a sector that faces both normal seasonal challenges and now climate-change-wrought abnormal ones. For the sake of our economy, and the world’s future food supply, this utterly avoidable workforce handbrake must be released.

This editorial was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.