Kiwi consumers are increasingly demanding food that is ethical and sustainable. However, hurdles remain including pricing and access, as Chris Marshall reports.
Wholly Cow Butchery can trace beef, lamb and goat products from pasture to plate.
Owners Tom and Carrie Andrews have an abattoir and a retail butchery shop, and farm the animals on their own 186-hectare property using holistic land-management practices.
“You know the beef you’re killing is 100 per cent yours, and it’s pretty much stress-free,” said their son Luke Andrews, who manages the butchery.
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“It’s not getting trucked up to Auckland for three hours, it’s walking pretty much straight out of the paddock, into the killing shed and then coming down to the shop after a couple of weeks hanging.”
Waste from the abattoir is composted and put back on the farm. Packaging is reduced and soft plastic waste sent to a facility in Auckland to become fence posts.
Previously the family grew meat for export, before deciding they wanted to get away from the control of “the big guys”.
They transitioned to concentrating on the local market, taking control of the whole chain from production to selling, and even distribution – delivering orders twice a week with a 35km radius of Tamahere.
Andrews said their ethical food production was a point of pride.
“Every year it’s growing and growing, we’re starting to get well-known now.”
Farmers are becoming more aware of the need for better safety on farms. (First published October 2018)
The drive for sustainability
Broadly speaking a sustainable product is made, used, and disposed of in ways that can lower the overall impact on the environment. It also takes into account the economic and social impact of production.
Research has shown we are aware of what this means in food production, but price and access remain hurdles to increasing sales.
The research by Our Land and Water (OLW), a national science challenge funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Technology, also showed urban Kiwis saw buying from farmers directly as the strongest sustainable food choice they could make.
OLW’s Dr James Turner said the same sample of consumers expressed concern that supermarkets were putting pressure on producers and holding back a healthy food system.
Dissatisfaction with the supermarket sector was also evident in Consumer NZ’s February submission on a Commerce Commission market study into the retail grocery sector.
Consumer said supply chains for fruit and vegetables and perishables like eggs and dairy products had features making them more open to abuse by dominant retailers.
“We’ve received reports from suppliers alleging unfair behaviour by supermarkets,” Consumer said in its submission. “However, suppliers are typically unwilling to raise these matters in public for fear of losing access.”
A sustainable business model
Bully tactics were an old story for Raglan’s Tracey Bayliss of ‘Grandad’s Beef’, a brand marketing meat from various farmers using a sustainable business model.
“If we’re going to kill one animal we use the whole animal, so the hardest thing was always getting rid of the secondary cuts,” Bayliss said.
“Everyone wants the steak… Dealing with restaurants went well for a bit then they didn’t want rump, only wanted eye fillet, and I said ‘well, I’m not going to feed into that system because that’s what’s wrong’.”
Bayliss described a similar situation with a supermarket chain.
“Same thing, they were taking whole carcasses, then they wanted it to be boned out, then they wanted it to be vac-packed and bar-coded because they don’t have the butchers any more.
“And then it got back to they only wanted steak and a bit of mince.
“So I pulled it because again I didn’t want to feed into that system.”
Farmers who wanted some control pretty much needed their own abattoir and/or butchery, said Bayliss.
She said cutting out the middle man would benefit the environment, and see cheaper meat from farmers who were being paid more.
She would also like to see red tape relaxed around selling home-killed meat.
Finding a sustainable balance
Streamside Organics has a foot in both camps when it comes to distribution.
The 50-acre vegetable-growing operation near Leeston, owned by Dominique Schacherer and Logan Kerr, sells at farmers’ markets, sends out veggie boxes twice a week, and supplies organic retail shops, restaurants and local supermarkets in Christchurch. They also ship some produce to the North Island.
Schacherer said consumers needed to understand that organic produce was always slightly more expensive, but accounted for environmental and social costs.
“Being sustainable needs to look at all those aspects, and it needs to be reflected in the price of the food.”
Some of that, rather than stemming from on-farm practices, could come from the likes of biodegradable packaging, she said.
“A tray might cost 20 cents as opposed to five.”
Shacherer said buying online direct from farmers was the most sustainable way to purchase produce.
“We use a local courier company and send out over 100 boxes a day… it’s just one truck dropping to all these destinations which are relatively close together, rather than everyone getting into their car and driving.”
Direct distribution meant the produce was only about 10 per cent more expensive than from the supermarket, while organic produce at the market or in shops was generally 30-40 per cent dearer.
It’s a differential Turner’s research called “the elephant in the room”.
“While some urban dwellers are willing to pay more for sustainably-grown food, most think food in New Zealand is too expensive as it is,” he noted.
Rising food prices
While consumers in Turner’s research were concerned for what farmers received, price increases for food were not recognised as a likely pathway towards sustainable farming.
This was a departure from some past research, said Turner, such as a 2008 study noting strong demand for sustainably produced, but higher-priced, wine.
That’s possibly because food prices are already rising faster than inflation.
Statistics NZ’s Food Price Index showed fruit and vegetable prices increased 8.9 per cent last year, while inflation was 1.4 per cent.
For Bayliss, price risked trumping sustainability in consumer’s minds.
“People are prepared to pay more? I can tell you in all the years I have been doing taste demos around the place, that’s not the case.
“It annoys me when I hear people saying ‘conscious consumer’; p… off with that because all you’re saying is there is an elite group of people who care where their food comes from.”
Many consumers, Bayliss pointed out, cared for the environment but could not afford expensive products.
“[If] you’ve got $10, and you need to feed 10 people, you’ve got to buy the $10 per kg mince, not the $26 per kg mince.”
A logistical challenge
However, it’s not as simple as saying that all consumers should buy direct from farms.
Respondents to the OLW surveys ranked logistics as a greater barrier than price, suggesting the mix of farmers’ markets, online sales, roadside stalls and small stores was complicated and time-consuming.
“Selling direct to consumers is currently challenging because our food system is set up for mass production and selling via big retailers,” said Turner.
Last year, the Ministry for Primary Industries granted funding via the Sustainable Futures Fund for at least four industry-partnered projects focussing on sustainability.
One project will develop an online marketplace to connect small primary producers with local customers.
Turner said for now, consumers needed to take more responsibility.
“Rather than saying the farmers have to sort it out, they [should] say ‘what can I do? Well, I could do more shopping at a farmers’ market or look online.’
“I can’t see it replacing supermarkets; I can see it putting pressure on supermarkets.”