A bid to get more of the region's food direct from local growers to consumers is behind a new research proposal.
The Nelson Environment Centre wants to investigate how food is supplied and consumed in the region in an attempt to create a more efficient market and give greater support to local producers.
The centre has applied for funding from the Ministry for the Environment and has asked the Nelson City Council to help finance a project examining the region's food supply, including how how much is produced through community gardens, sold through local markets, and how buyers and sellers can connect more directly .
The centre's energy manager Carolyn Hughes said farmers were struggling because they were selling much of their produce to supermarkets .
"Supermarkets push the prices down of course, so the money they are getting for their produce makes it quite difficult for them to continue and invest," she said.
The centre estimated about 80-95 per cent of food sold in Nelson through Foodstuffs - which operates Pak n Save and New World - was being imported or transported into the region.
That was costly in terms of products' freshness, in fuel, and in higher carbon emissions.
However, a Foodstuffs spokeswoman said the company had opened a Tahunanui distribution centre in March to provide fresher produce to the top of the South Island, but a "small volume of products" was still sent to Christchurch before being redistributed.
Progressive Enterprises, which owns Countdown and franchises Fresh Choice and Super Value, said Countdown's produce was managed from a few key central distribution centres around New Zealand. They did not include Nelson.
Former Green Party MP Sue Kedgley said alternatives such as farmers markets and small grocers were a "life-saver" for small-scale farmers who were facing more pressure from the big supermarkets.
They reduced margins "to the point where many producers are having to sell their produce at virtually no profit whatsoever or even below the cost of production", eventually driving them out of business and creating a concentration of food suppliers, she said.
While farmers were getting "squeezed to such an extent they are circumnavigating supermarkets completely" Kedgley estimated that supermarkets still controlled more than 90 per cent of the grocery retail market and the system worked against localised markets.
"Certainly our environment doesn't encourage local production and local producers," she said.
However, some supermarkets said they were focussed on giving local food producers a fair deal.
Mark A'Court, owner of Nelson's Fresh Choice, said it was part of his store's philosophy to work with local producers to stock their goods, such as fruit and vegetables, cheese and milk, fish from Motueka each morning, and early morning deliveries of berries from a Motutere farmer in summer.
Local products were given prominence in the store with those produced within 200km radius labelled as such.
A'Court said selling local goods was economically viable as it gave his store a niche in the supermarket business, but products had to be competitive with realistic prices for consumers.
He said the store engaged in "transparent conversations" with producers about margins as there had been some mistrust between producers and consumers, and supermarkets, but it was a hurdle he had been trying to overcome in the last five to six years.
He focussed on engaging with the local market, but being under the Progressive Enterprises umbrella meant negotiations with the big producers was done at the national level.
Initially A'Court had not known if the local focus would work, but it had steadily gained momentum. There were challenges in pursuing it and it had taken extra staff and hard work, he said.
A'Court said there was a need to focus on the growing end of the food industry.
He could not get enough growers, and would sell more if he could get more.
The Environment Centre is seeking $293,000 over three years from the ministry to fund the project, and $120,000 from the council. It has started preliminary work at community gardens and farmers market to get a snapshot of the local market and consumers' demands.
Alternatives being looked at included subscriptions to vegetable boxes where people prepay for a box of in-season produce giving farmers assurance that what they plant has already been purchased.
Hughes said usual environmental spinoffs from increasing local food production were the reduced use of chemicals meaning greater plant and fauna diversity and reduced carbon emissions from less imported food.
- The Nelson Mail
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