Food supply is a matter of national security. Empty shelves in the supermarket are an unfamiliar sight in New Zealand, more reminiscent of 1980s Eastern Europe. We’ve had such relative privilege for so long, many of us forgot how dependent we were on contingent, international supply chains.
Our supermarkets have been full of food from around the globe, and we’ve had access to travel to all its corners. Before Coronavirus, people had become complacent about the ability to buy a pair of shoes made in China, a t-shirt from Bangladesh, food from Turkey, or a trip to Antarctica or Machu Picchu. Often price and pleasure informed our decisions to buy, regardless of the impact on workers, the environment or food miles and carbon emissions. Meanwhile we knew our best lamb and apples and kiwifruit were sent offshore to reach high prices there while we had the smallest and misshapen, non-export grade stock at world market prices. We felt the effects of over-tourism, but took our tourism dollar elsewhere. We could order a book on Amazon, and we’d watch Donald Trump with distant dismay. That’s what globalisation brought us.
Our ability to fly or buy from around the world made our global community smaller and more interconnected. Unlike in nature, complexity in supply chains leads to increased vulnerability. According to supply chain risk managers, cars, for example, have anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 components; aeroplanes have up to six million. Sophisticated but ubiquitous technology such as cell phones are supported by raw resources from Africa, tech from the US, construction from China for consumption in all of the above and beyond. Any one component can include parts from many countries, each with parts from many others. Dependence on international supply chains has made us vulnerable – to exposure to disease, disruptions in any part of the chain, and dependent on successfully functioning markets to sell our own goods overseas. That dependence has left us over-exposed to risk. It’s made us mostly takers not makers.
Coronavirus related supply chain disruption is already altering the way we do business. Some of it’s the result of domestic lockdown, some from further afield. Here in New Zealand 5000 pigs a week are not being ‘processed’ (killed) because there’s no outlet for their meat with independent butchers prohibited from sales. But another 7000 pigs a week are still imported and consumed from North America and European states where animal welfare standards are poorer. Milk, meat and fruit around the world, are dumped because they can’t be picked, produced or sold. When shop shelves are empty – it’s not necessarily because there’s no stock, but because of supply chain failure.
Responses to supply chain failures often focus on three R’s – building Resilience, Reshoring – bringing industry back on-shore, and Replacing inaccessible offshore goods and disrupted supply lines with local alternatives.
As New Zealand rebuilds its economy after the Covid-19 lockdown, these responses will be essential. Through retraining we have an opportunity to rebuild New Zealand’s domestic capacity and reduce global dependence. We can stimulate local employment and consumer markets for locally made goods. It’s anticipated that domestic tourism will partly offset losses from closed borders (all those Kiwis who have traveled the world but never toured the South Island – now’s your chance). We can support a green, zero-carbon economy and build in more resilience, we can replace inaccessible goods with God’s Own from Godzone. Jobs previously filled by international workers and holidaymakers might now be more appealing to Kiwis made jobless elsewhere.
Imagine a resurgence of New Zealand made clothes, shoes, cars and trains as the value of supporting domestic trades and industry are considered in cost equations, not just seeking the lowest price tender. But just as global supply chains have geopolitical implications, the shape of rebuilt supply chains and economic streams in New Zealand are political too. So expect a fight among vested interests.
The renewed era of nationalism automatically appeals to the policy purview of New Zealand First. Never shy to reject internationalism with an approach bordering on xenophobia, NZ First are already advocating a Buy New Zealand Made campaign.
An apparent new era of interventionist, nationalist ‘big (New Zealand first) government’ also has support from NZ First – through perhaps a new Ministry of Works, and through levies on timber exports to support domestic access and local industry recovery.
In response to the Government’s calls for nominated ‘shovel ready’ projects to kick start the economy after lockdown, there is already jostling on the list of preferred projects. Some seek preference for the construction sector over roads and pipes and the project formerly known as SkyPath. But there’s plenty of support for roads too. Improved internet services and travel demand management should be a priority in the new era of remote working and to sustain the wins of working from home during lockdown. Many socially beneficial projects need not be expensive – such as tactical urbanism responding to the need for social distancing on narrow footpaths which have never been so popular. Community gardens will assist long term self-sufficiency and help maintain food security and supply. Greenpeace have proposed a clear Green Covid Response plan here.
There are debates about whether the economic costs of lockdown outweigh public health costs, again New Zealand First are arguing for a quicker resumption of business as usual. Last week Auckland Council considered its bids for the Government’s list of ‘Shovel ready’ projects in a process that pitted progressive Councillors against conservatives.
Pre-empting its Three Year and Annual Planning processes currently underway, the Council has cut around 1100 jobs – reducing the chance of a recovery for those workers at the very least, and undermining Council capacity to deliver on projects. The Council should be investing in staff, recognising the flow-on effects from employment and spending, but it’s instead laying them off and cancelling contracts. Whether rates will be frozen to reduce household expenses, but also reducing the capacity to deliver important social, economic and environmental projects, is a subsequent question.
Government and Council investment decisions should consider more than just monetary profit and loss. Taking lessons from supply chain economics, they should consider matters of resilience, – ensuring investments are carbon neutral and future focussed. They should be socially equitable and building capacity in-house and in-country. They should replace dependence on fragile external forces. Generally, the shorter supply chain- the less risk, there’s strength in staying local. They should replace outdated modes with environmentally and socially friendly alternatives – walking and cycling – to help us all burn fat, not oil.
In the meantime, we should get used to less diversity on the shelves in our shops, and recognise the premium of supporting local suppliers, vendors and workers. We should be supporting our communities. Times like this show how essential our community is.