Why councils in New Zealand need food policy

Cities need to put in place food strategies that connect their departments across environment, parks, community, health and farming if we want to effectively meet our climate change goals (both adaptation and mitigation) and address issues of food and health in our communities.


That means a new way of thinking for many councils, who haven’t considered food as vehicle to solve these challenges, or a cause of the issues. We have great examples in New Zealand (Dunedin, Christchurch, Rotorua) of implementing food policies and working with the wider community and its food voice to achieve that and we’re now also starting to see food mentioned in climate change policy.


In New Zealand we unhelpfully split our municipal health and council functions into health boards and local councils, and further split our environment functions into the regional councils, which means making food policy a little tricky as it needs to be an umbrella across all of those organisations.


Food as a policy is essentially water, soil and land management on the one hand and the impact that has on people’s health and our communities on the other. This means joining the policy, planning and team responses. Navigating how climate change policy, both adaptation and mitigation, incorporates this is also important.


The food system is reliant on the environment and simultaneously impacts it across the value chain. It takes a lot of inputs and processes to get food from where it is grown to how it is sold and eaten, often involving transportation across the country and the world to get food on the plate. The food system has direct impacts on the environment across all stages: production, manufacturing, selling, and eating; alongside wasted food and transportation.


Climate change impacts the food system, affecting land use practices, availability of water, soil quality, and nutrient quality of food. The irony of the food system is that making and wasting food produces greenhouse gasses (GHG), while the natural resources needed to grow and make food are directly affected by the impacts of those GHG that are contributing to climate change. We now know that this affects human health through under nutrition.

*The Global Syndemic views climate change as a pandemic and states:  “The health gains achieved over the past 50 years of global economic development could be reversed over the
next 50 years due to the consequences of climate change.” Obesity, under-nutrition and climate change are viewed as concurrent pandemics, leading to a Syndemic. Policy inertia exists on this and until recently the three topics have not been addressed together.


At a recent Auckland Council climate change talk on that point, it was refreshing to see so many health practitioners in the room, five years ago, if that dialogue was happening, the audience would have focused on sustainability and community projects to discuss food.  With the release of Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems and The Global Syndemic we now have international data that councils can point to and a framework for bringing sectors together.


Of course the recommendations in those reports are global and do not pertain directly to the culture, the growing conditions, the farming practices and the health statistics of our country specifically, so of course those nuances must be considered when applying policy, taken with a grain of salt so to speak. In saying that the global food system is exactly that, global, and the challenges that we face as a country are very similar in other places. But we must apply local voices and perspective to these issues, be inspired by global reports, yes, but ensure the localisation of the solutions. That is where forums such as food policy councils or food alliances can bring people, real citizens, from across the food system in the community together to share ideas and perspectives and have a common voice with a local government to help shape such solutions. This is not new. Municipalities across the world have been working with this method for a long time to give food the voice it deserves.


Here are some tips for councils looking at incorporating food policy:


·       Help facilitate the creation of Food Alliances (or Food Policy Councils) from your community. The key is to be supportive but do not control them. Food policy councils need to be an independent voice of the food system, not the council’s.

·       Internally bring your parks, environment, sustainability, climate change and farming teams together to work on a common strategy. In the case of Auckland, with multiple council controlled organisations working on food (e.g. tourism, economic development of food businesses, community food projects, compost or waste recovery teams) this is quite the undertaking but needs to be done. Get a common internal voice on food.

·       To be clear, councils need to have a separate food policy, one that is not the soil and water policy of the regional council. Food needs a voice in your planning system.

·       Externally work with the regional council (soil / water) and health practitioners, such as Healthy Families representatives if you have them, or your regional public health providers and others. The solutions need to come right across those sectors.