Flour is finally back on the shelves after nearly a month of lockdown. While New Zealand is self-sufficient with milk, meat, fruit and vegetables, it turns out we’re not self-sufficient in flour. It’s not an impossible scenario that in a future crisis our country could lose access to bread. Cut yourself a slice of our easy no-knead bread (recipe here) and settle in for this deep dive into how bread is one of the key indicators of a country’s stability.
Pick a disruptive event in human history - war, drought, pandemic - and nearly all include severe food limitations and shortages.
We are incredibly fortunate to live in a time and country where our supermarkets have remained stocked throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Well... stocked with everything but flour.
Reports from up and down the country have shown the item most difficult to get during lockdown has been flour. It’s shown how much we rely on bread to survive a crisis, and exposed how dependent we are on other countries to produce it.
In this case, it wasn’t that our actual stocks of flour ran low - this shortage has been largely due to issues of packaging, high demand, and how quickly it could be restocked.
But New Zealand doesn’t actually grow enough wheat to feed ourselves. Future pandemics and crises, especially those that affect global trade, could well see a scenario where we run out of access to bread.
The importance of bread
Bread is considered a key metric by which we judge food security and accessibility in New Zealand.
“Nearly all wars of medieval time, the first thing that they did was the siege of the wheat of a village,” says Dr Negar Partow, a senior lecturer of security studies at Massey University. “That's how you would break them down to their knees. They get dominance over your food resources, particularly bread, because that's how you control the population.”
Not only is bread a staple of our diet, it’s also exactly the kind of food people need in order to handle difficult times. It uses few ingredients, all which keep for long periods, and is carbohydrate-rich, keeping you full and providing plenty of energy.
Throughout history, Negar says, the efficacy of leaders was often gauged by the availability of bread.
“The distribution of bread has such intrinsic political implications. The [histories of a] government who could give people bread would read ‘such-and-such leader came into power, and there was no shortage of bread'.”
Bread’s significance can be seen in our traditions, and in our language. As a symbol of fertility, we refer to unborn babies as “a bun in the oven”. As a symbol of kinship, we discuss “breaking bread” with those we trust. As a symbol of wealth and income, we talk about being “on the breadline”, refer to work as “bread and butter”, and call the main financial provider “the breadwinner”.
But despite the deep history of bread helping us through times of crisis, it turns out we actually don’t grow enough flour in New Zealand to get through a pandemic.
We can’t live off the amount of flour we grow in New Zealand
We are far from self-sufficient in the grains used to make flour. In fact, 75% of the bread in our supermarkets is made from Australian grain. “I just assumed that we were all eating New Zealand-grown grain,” says Alison Stewart, CEO of the Foundation for Arable Research. “It was just not something that I had even contemplated.”
The need to be self-sufficient with essential food items has rarely been more pressing than right now in the midst of a global pandemic. But, Alison says it has been something her work has been trying to tackle long before we ever heard the term Covid-19.
“I was giving a presentation about six months ago talking about food security, and I made the point that we are secure and self-sufficient with milk, meat, fruit and vegetables, but we're not fully self-sufficient in grain,” Alison says.
“Therefore, if we did have a major crisis globally and we had to close our borders, then we wouldn't necessarily be able to service the needs of our domestic population. And, of course, six months later, we're now in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Fortunately New Zealand has managed to maintain our supply chains in imported items, and so our supply of wheat and other products has continued relatively smoothly. But this was not a guarantee, and it is not outside the realm of possibility within this crisis, or a future one, that New Zealand may lose access to imports of essentials like flour.
It’s a situation many other countries are facing. The United Nations Food and Agriculture organisation wrote in March this year that “a protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more.”
One potential issue could be if countries we trade with begin to prioritise their own food supplies over exports. Chairman of the United Wheat Growers NZ, Brian Ledley, says even before Covid-19, due to a lower yield caused by drought, Australia itself had to turn to importing wheat for their own domestic use.
“That would indicate that with their own growing demand, population increase, and a slight drop in production, there is some shadow over the availability of [wheat to import from Australia],” Brian says.
“It highlights the need for New Zealand to be self-sufficient and there is no reason why it can't be done, should the consumer require it.”
As well as supply chain disruptions, we may be cut off from imports if we were to close our borders, or the borders of our major trading partners were closed. Luckily, a spokesperson for the Ministry for Primary Industries says this isn’t likely, as lockdown measures ensured sea freight routes remained open for both imports and exports. “We have not seen, and are not predicting, any major disruptions to imported foods, however we will continue to keep an eye on this, so any potential issues can be addressed early,” the spokesperson says via email.
Why don’t we grow our own flour?
According to both Brian and Alison, New Zealand is fully capable of producing enough flour to fulfill our needs. So then, why don’t we?
Simply put, we are feeding it to our cows. Around two-thirds of all grain produced in New Zealand is dedicated to feeding predominantly dairy cows, but also pork and poultry.
In the past, New Zealand was fully self-sufficient in grain. However, over the past two decades low wheat prices from overseas and high demand and prices to use grains as stock feed have caused a major shift. As a result, many grain farmers either pivoted into other land uses such as dairy and beef, or moved into cultivating crops specifically for stock feed.
“We have this situation in New Zealand where if you are a wheat grower, you can get more money for growing wheat to feed cows, than you get for growing wheat to feed humans,” Alison says.
“And that's a really strange situation - it's quite perverse that we pay more to feed cows than we do to feed ourselves.”
She says while it's understandable how we got to this point, “I think there is a moral responsibility that New Zealand should be able to provide the basic staples to its own people from the produce that it grows.
“We are a food production country and it does seem ridiculous that we would import flour from other countries when we've got some of the best arable growers in the world right on our doorstep.”
So could we just take the grain from the cows if we needed?
Unfortunately, in an emergency situation if we needed to produce our own grain, it would not be as simple as diverting the grain away from animals and towards human consumption. Firstly, there would be the problem of still having six and a half million cows to feed.
Secondly, this grain couldn’t be diverted to human consumption because the grains grown for stock feed are different varieties than those for humans. Only a very small selection of these cultivars meet the specifications for humans, which means even in an emergency situation if we needed to supply wheat locally, we would have to wait a whole season (at least six months, but up to a year) for the industry to replant and grow the grain we need domestically, Alison says.
“If we had to close our borders for nine months, then I don't know whether the amount of grain that had been grown in New Zealand in this last season would be able to meet the needs of the country. And I think that that's not a good position to be in.”
Negar says there are key questions the public, agricultural industries and Government should be asking about our food security plans right now.
“If we need to completely lockdown our country, what are the cracks in our security systems that we can think about? Do we have a plan of, for example, how fast can we grow wheat if we need to?” says Negar.
She says a plan for the security of a staple food should include information on how much our country needs of a product, what the country has in storage, what the supply chain and reliance is for imports, and how quickly we could move to full domestic production if we had to.
The Ministry of Primary Industries says while they don’t keep “lists” to inform on food security, they do provide regulatory oversight for food safety and food production.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government has been working to prioritise and maintain food production and the domestic supply chain so that food is always available,” a spokesperson says.
“It’s also worth noting that New Zealand produces more than enough food for its people.”
As MPI says, if necessary, New Zealand does have the capability to feed our population. In fact, it’s estimated our agricultural sector has the capacity to feed 40 million people.
Yet the fact remains, if that situation were to arise right now, we would not be able to provide bread to the people. Which is something that would likely not play well if we were all staring at bare bread shelves, knowing they were to remain bare.
We used to respect our bread
In Judaism, God was said to have provided the Jews with the bread of the gods, Manna, in order to survive the forty years they spent in the desert after fleeing Egypt (although it is much more likely this was a lichen, rather than a grain). Now, Jewish people clean their houses in the new year for any bread crumbs, believing their blessing from God should not be wasted.
In Christianity, bread played a significant part in Jesus’s journey, including his last supper, and Christians still use bread in their rite of eucharist to remember the sacrifice.
“You see, all of this symbolism of bread that we have,” Negar says. “Constantly we talk about bread in our everyday language as something that is magnificent and is very valuable.”
“But in practice, because we have unfortunately a very consumeristic, capitalist approach toward shopping in general, this kind of respect has only remained in our language. It hasn't remained in our practice of purchasing and making bread.
“I believe our ancestors would be terrified of the amount of bread that we throw out - like it actually could bring the wrath of God down on us.”
In 2014 the organisation Love Food, Hate Waste did a review of New Zealand’s food waste. They found the number one thing we wasted was bread - every year we throw out 15,714 tonnes of it, at a national cost of $62.5 million.
This wastage was likely even worse over this pandemic, Negar says. At the first sign of a security threat, people’s impulse is to hoard the food items that give them a sense of food security.
“Just before the lockdown, I went to the supermarket and saw somebody with a trolley with what looked like 20 packs of bread,” she says. “Okay, so how are you going to keep them? Freeze them?”
These kinds of hoarding impulses come from a lack of knowledge and education around food security, Negar says. Having public education in the purchasing, storage, and preparation of food is just as important as oversight on supply and demand for handling our food security in times of crisis.
“This is very important. In wartime - Second World War, the Iran and Iraq wars, any war - you have a problem with bread and shortness of bread,” says Negar. “And one of the lessons is that when they bought bread, they didn't eat the new bread, but instead ate the stale bread first and kept the fresh bread. That way you could have a longer shelf life for your bread.
“These are very good strategies. We need to learn about these strategies for keeping and managing bread in our household. The public needs to be taught how to keep bread, store bread, make bread, substitute flour in the bread - respect bread in a way. Ultimately, how to not panic about bread.”
Caring for others by sharing bread
These strategies are about more than caring for yourself, Negar says, they’re about caring for others. During times of insecurity, it is likely that a loaf of bread you throw out is a loaf of bread another person didn’t get to eat.
Ultimately, this is what Negar wants to come out of this crisis - a greater understanding of human security as a collective problem.
Let’s say we did need to lock down our borders and rely only on the food we could grow here. Right now the flour we produce would not be enough to feed everyone. That would likely mean only the wealthiest would have access to flour and bread, and the poorest would not.
If we were to view security as a collective concern, it would be imperative to ensure essential goods like flour and bread remained accessible for all New Zealanders in a crisis situation.
“My best dream is that this tragedy leads to a more ethical market and a global rethinking of human security,” says Negar. “What do we need to invest in? How ethical can we be?”
“The fact is, these problems are not only our problems or their problems, it is everybody's problem. That is really my dream.”