Growing our way out of COVID in the recovery's third wave – growing healthy food

18 May 2020 Growing our way out of COVID in the recovery's third wave – growing healthy food image

I am proposing that there is a third wave to New Zealand's COVID recovery plan. The first wave focused on the health of people. The second wave is focusing on the economy, with a large number of financial initiatives announced in last week's 2020 Budget. My proposed third wave will, however, be long term and enduring, and it will encapsulate the first and second waves covering both health and financial sustainability. It will also actively contribute to environmental sustainability.

My third wave is expanding the growth of fruit and vegetables in New Zealand, which ticks several recovery boxes. First, getting healthy food to all in New Zealand so that they have resistance against not only COVID but other diseases and medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Second, horticulture employs a lot of people, and our produce earns premiums in export markets. It will therefore enable financial sustainability within New Zealand and give us valuable funds to buy what we need from overseas countries, including the COVID vaccine when it is developed. Third, it is environmentally sustainable and, with funding applied in the right way from Budget 2020, it will become much more environmentally sustainable. Lastly, growing fruit and vegetables nurtures our rural communities and enables social development

Financial, social, environmental and health sustainability – driven by an increase in horticulture – is very possible, and several Budget 2020 initiatives are directed to achieve these outcomes. But they will not come easily, and they will not be successful unless the initiatives are industry-led. Pre-COVID, horticulture was making significant gains in all four categories. What we now need to do is accelerate these outcomes for the benefit of New Zealand.

Innovation and expansion are constrained by regulation and laws, so the first step is to work out what can be changed. The Government's proposal to speed up the Resource Management Act (RMA) and the recently passed Immigration Amendment Act are good examples of what needs to be done to clear away unnecessary bureaucracy. The key however is for the Government to truly partner with industry, to listen and give industry appropriate leeway to make the progress that is so urgently needed. The Government must use its amended powers to promote growth, not stifle it.

There are three key areas for action: trade; infrastructure; and labour. As a nation, we are going to have to trade our way out of our financial crisis. Tourism will not be the immediate or even the medium-term answer. Depending on the trans-Tasman bubble and whether a vaccine is developed, tourism will progressively increase over the long-term. But it will not answer the issues we are facing today.

The world needs food, and that's what New Zealand is good at. But to get our food to the world's consumers, we need market access. Here is a key role for the Government: keeping our trading pathways open. Linked to this, and supported in Budget 2020, is enabling the safe importation of new plant varieties so New Zealand can keep up with international competition by selling the latest and best fruit and vegetables.

Growth also needs supporting infrastructure. The East Coast of New Zealand is and has been in drought for many months. Plants need water to thrive and so do humans. Our cities on the East Coast have water restrictions in place, and just recently, concerns have been raised about sufficient water for Auckland. To provide water for people and plants, significant water storage schemes are urgently required. These cannot be modest and need to accommodate previously unknown drought conditions. What applied in the pre-COVID world is no longer relevant.

If we are to feed our people and many of the world's consumers, we need to expand our growing of healthy food and that requires water. The Government's RMA process proposals are critical and need to be urgently applied to water storage schemes. Many other infrastructure projects are needed and will hopefully get funding, but significant water storage schemes are the most urgent.

Availability of labour and suitable land are also vital requirements. Many New Zealanders now need to develop new skills and take on different jobs thanks to COVID. This is no easy process and requires aptitude and re-training. It also requires the industries they are joining to be growing.

Horticulture relies on seasonal workers for harvest and pruning. These workers enable continued growth that creates attractive permanent careers opportunities for New Zealanders. All the primary sector has a reliance on offshore labour and this will continue. However, if access to offshore labour is limited, the growth New Zealand needs will not eventualise.

For horticulture and wine, this means the continuation and expansion of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme that employs Pacific Island seasonal workers. We need these workers for our continued growth and they need the work in New Zealand so they can earn money to invest in their communities. At the same time, the scheme results in more New Zealanders being permanently employed.

Growing our way out of COVID will not be easy. It requires the Government to partner with industry, loosen regulatory requirements and urgently support key projects such as significant water storage infrastructure. The Government also needs to support trade access and ensure that the offshore labour that industry needs remains available.

All of this will enable New Zealand to grow its way out of COVID.

Mike Chapman, Chief Executive