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Future of food: Free trade with China

May 25, 2008

Future of Food: Free Trade With China

By Diane Cordemans and Charlotte Cuthbertson

Epoch Times New Zealand Staff

Many fruit and vegetable growers in New Zealand are concerned the free trade agreement (FTA) with China will mean a further blow to an industry already hit by imports and rising production costs.

"I don’t agree to a free trade agreement with China. I think it is a wrong thing to do for a small country like this. So I am very dead against the free trade agreement, but there is nothing I can do about it," said Keith Vallabh, commercial grower and managing director of Pineview Gardens in Pukekohe.

Mr Vallabh said a recent delegation to China was exploring options for importing fresh onions to New Zealand, along with another couple of varieties of pears, bananas and table grapes.

"Do we really want to have that kind of product coming from a country where we don’t know what the food safety standards are like? We have very strict food safety standards here and that is a big concern for our people."

He said stricter border security and mandatory country of origin food labelling become more important when "importing those kind of products. You can say that on one side-in China they are known for all sorts of things-documents are easy to counterfeit."

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) does a core sample, he said, but there are many gaps.

"I think we need to be tougher... we should be looking after our food producers. This is what this country is built on."

Cheap Chinese Garlic Overtakes NZ Industry

Garlic farmer Robert Harrison-Jones is one of the few surviving in the garlic industry and he says he exports most of his produce to Australia because he cannot compete locally with cheap garlic imports from China.

"They [the Chinese] are bringing it into the country dirt cheap. There is no country of origin on the label, there are no protocols in place.

We have got traceability, they don’t. We have got to keep spray diaries, all sorts of things, records of where it was dug, when it was dug, where it is in our shed, everything. They wouldn’t have any idea what paddock the garlic came from or what treatment was done to it, what it was grown in, what was sprayed on. Theirs has all been treated, it has been bleached, god knows what it has been grown in."

Mr Harrison-Jones said the garlic from China does not get tested at our borders, and MAF "does not really care".

If the Chinese produce was regulated a lot more he said he could survive selling all his garlic in New Zealand, although, right now, he cannot compete with the price. Half a kilo of Chinese garlic at the moment is 80 cents.

"But we do have a lot of loyal customers out there who will only buy New Zealand garlic which is really, really good. A lot of the restaurants will only use New Zealand garlic. They know what’s in it, they know the flavour, they only have to use 2 or 3 cloves against a whole bulb."

Farmers Markets Keeping Produce Local

Sue Kedgley, Green Party safe food spokesperson doesn’t think free trade should apply to food.

"We now import, I think, 8.1 million tons of food. We import about half the food we eat, and our reliance on imports is growing by the year.

She said a large percentage of our processed food is imported and there is a concern around the reliance on imports for the basic staples that make bread, pasta, rice and other staple foods.

"What I am concerned about is staples like wheat. We used to be self-sufficient in it back in the 1970s and we now import 75 percent of the wheat that we eat."

Ms Kedgley is an advocate for people to grow their own food and support farmers markets.

"Not only do you know where your food is coming from, the money is going straight to the farmer and not to all those other intermediaries along the way."

Farmers Market New Zealand (FMNZ) have seen an increase of farmers markets in this country over recent years and they are attracting a broad cross-section of shoppers. There are over 40 farmers markets operating throughout New Zealand and they are a sign of changing shopping methods.

"Customers seeking fresh, good quality, local produce are coming face to face with local farmers’, growers, preservers, and bakers with delicious consequences. Add increased returns to food producers, a boost to regional economic development, social benefits and tourism spin-offs to the mix and quite clearly farmers’ markets have something to offer everyone," the FMNZ website states.

But, President of United Fresh New Zealand, Ron Becroft, said even with the number of farmers markets now it is still quite difficult for a farmer to shift the volume of fruit in three hours on a Saturday morning to make a living.

"It is fair to say there are a lot of growers operating on very small margins."

Consumers Expectations Driving Imports

Mr Becroft, said today’s consumers do not understand the seasonality of produce-driving the expectation of year-round fresh fruit and veges, and subsequently, food imports.

"I am often staggered that people don’t realise that each variety of apples is only harvested over a few weeks. When we had the orchard you’d have people coming in wanting royal gala in October and November and they want them straight off the tree and you’d sort of show them a tree that was just budding up ready to come into flower and that seemed some sort of mystery to them."

Mr Becroft said consumers today pay less for food in general, relative to their overall earning, than they ever have in history.

Mr Vallabh agrees. "The consumer believes that the prices they pay for produce is expensive. If a cauli costs $3.99 people baulk at the idea but they are quite happy to walk down the street and pay $3.50 for a cup of coffee. I know how many meals you get out of a cauli and how many mouths you are going to feed. How many mouths are you going to feed with one cup of coffee?"

 source: Epoch Times