Feeding local population vs food exports

30 Jan, 2020
Emeritus Professor Elaine Rush

AUT study shows that food insecurity may be linked to nutritional disparity in global food trade, with high-quality exports and nutrient-poor imports.

The study, led by AUT Emeritus Professor of Nutrition Elaine Rush, compared the nutritional quality of New Zealand’s food exports and imports, from 2016 to 2018, and how many people could be fed based on dietary guidelines.

“New Zealand exports high-quality foods but, at the same time, we know that people are not able to feed themselves well. We need to understand why those who live in a land of plenty are not well nourished,” says Professor Rush.

New Zealand has a population of 4.9 million. Almost 40 per cent of adults and 20 per cent of children live in a household with severe to moderate food insecurity, where food either runs out or less variety is eaten from lack of income.

More than 60 per cent of people do not eat the recommended 5+ servings of fruit and vegetables a day.

The prevalence of obesity, a form of malnutrition and indicator of food insecurity, is 32 per cent among adults and 12 per cent among children.

The study was recently published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Researchers analysed New Zealand’s annual food exports and imports in relation to dietary guidelines – six servings of grains, five servings of vegetables and approximately two servings apiece of protein (meat, fish, eggs, legumes and nuts), dairy and fruit a day. For each major food group, they calculated the number of people that could be fed the recommended servings for an entire year.

The study reveals that food exports were dominated by excess servings of dairy and protein (enough to feed 39.3 and 11.7 million people respectively), followed by fruit (10 million) and vegetables (two million). In contrast, the vast majority of food imports were grains (enough to feed nine million people).

“New Zealand’s food exports could meet most of the population’s dietary requirements, except for grains. Intake of dietary fibre is low and unrefined grains should be a major source, but most imported rice and pasta was refined,” says Professor Rush.

“High-nutrient foods were exported for income. Meanwhile, a large proportion of imports, which are a cost to New Zealand, included discretionary and nutrient-poor foods. Sugar and wheat were imported in the largest quantities – for both, the equivalent of 300g per person every day for a year.

“This disconnect has long-term implications for nutrition-related non-communicable diseases, healthcare and productivity.”

Agriculture drives New Zealand’s economy alongside tourism.

In 2016, more than 12 million hectares (45 per cent of total land area) were farmed for agriculture and horticulture, including beef and lamb (71 per cent), dairy (21 per cent) and grains (1.7 per cent). Only two per cent of farmed land was used for vegetables and fruit, including wine.

“Food insecurity and nutritional inequities in diet highlight the need for policy that considers the wellbeing of the local population as well as the drive to export premium foods to increase income from trade,” says Professor Rush.

“Improved access to the foods included in dietary guidelines and restriction of imports of discretionary food requires concentrated action at local, national and global levels.

“A country that can produce more than enough high-quality food should feed its own first.”

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