DOUGLAS LLOYD JENKINS, Director of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery

There has been much talk in political and business circles about the possibility (or not) of New Zealand catching-up with Australia sometime, anytime, soon. This catching-up is always presented in terms of wages and salaries, as if this was all that mattered. However, if we put those limitations aside for a moment, even wage parity with Australia seems something of a stretch.

One doesn’t need to have a complex understanding of economics to know that the essential difference between Australia and New Zealand is that there are 22 million of them and that they have minerals. They have both critical mass and the resources that China and America need. That combination has allowed them to cruise through recent global downturns, but it also means that they’re going to stay good and rich for some time to come – unless of course there is some sort of dramatic change in the world order.

Just how important mining is to Australia, can be grasped by their resistance to either a mining or a carbon tax. However, it really hits home when you open the financial pages of an Australian newspaper. The number of stock market listings for mining companies more or less equals those of all other businesses combined – you begin to get the picture.

New Zealand on the other hand has not so many minerals and an increasing resistance to harvesting those we do have. So be it, in the meantime New Zealand will either become poorer or learn to develop an alternative source of foreign income. The new hot issue in Australia is ‘food security’. What that means is that in the last few weeks Australians have been having a little panic that they might soon run out of food, with headline making predictions including: ‘Australia faces widespread food shortages in as little as a decade.’

The reason for this is that Australia has 22 million people and they live in a desert full of minerals but not much in the way of water. As a result, Australian food production is stagnating – even falling. Top of the list of issues is water. In South Australia – a significant food producer – the shortage requires water to be imported interstate. Even then, many farmers are receiving less than their full allocation. As a result they are either reducing plantings or failing to expand to meet growing demand. Other issues … a decline in farm numbers, less people taking up farming and urban sprawl over productive areas, are impacting on farming there and elsewhere in Australia.

Food security is becoming an issue now, because last year for the first time Australia imported more food than it exported. The largest source of that food was an underpopulated, wet, largely mineral poor, New Zealand.
Looked at a little more broadly the general feeling is that food production globally must double in the next 40 years in order to simply keep pace with population growth. So it’s not just Australia that’s going to need to import food but China, America and a host of others. It seems then that New Zealand might soon have something all these others are going to need, the price of which is bound to rise significantly.

It’s no new idea that New Zealand might be a good place from which to feed the rest of the world, but it’s one we don’t always pay as much attention to as we should. However, it is dangerous to think that just because we grow it, they’re going to buy it. Particularly as attachment of the two terms, food and security, means that Australia has a degree of paranoid protectionism being built into the mix.

How then do we prepare for a future in which we feed Australia?

A visit to any Australian market, or even a lone vegetable stall, makes it hard to get to grips with the notion of impending food shortages. Somehow Australian fruit and vegetables always seem bigger, bolder, brighter and more various than those at home. That is, until you understand that the asparagus is from Peru, the garlic from China, the citrus from America, the pineapples from the Philippines and the Brussel sprouts
(I kid you not) from Belgium.

Therefore, if New Zealanders want to crack the Australia broccoli trade they need to understand that the issue is not as much about supply … but demand. Middle class Australia, which has got used to having pots of disposable income, has become food mad. MasterChef is the national religion and fresh good-looking produce rules in homes and restaurants. Those same wealthy middle class Australians have also invested strongly in design, be it bold restaurant schemes, over-the-top home kitchens and even their very own version of Grand Designs.

This is in part because top quality is usually associated with top presentation – and when that involves packaging it also includes a high degree of design awareness. In short, Australians don’t buy things that aren’t stylish – even fruit and veggies. In New Zealand we still think of the design aspects of a product as an add-on. In Australia design is seen as a central plank of a purchasing decision.

New Zealand can of course sit out the intervening years between now and 2050 when the world will probably get to the point of buying any old cabbage leaf. Or we can start thinking of food in design terms and selling it to the Australians ahead of the rush. And from here, one of those options seems bigger, bolder and brighter than the other.

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