Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Staple Crops: New Zealand's biggest food weakness

"Staples?" a friend remarked. "Yes, it's very hard to get them from New Zealand - the ones that fit my stapler come from China." But seriously, the lack of locally-grown staple foods is a massive weakness in the food sovereignty and food security of this country (and probably other 'developed countries).  It's easy, in this sub-tropical climate to grow masses of tomatoes and zuccini in summer and brassicas all winter long. Those of us who don't garden can often access locally grown foods if we try, but the foods we have come to know as staples: grains (wheat, oats, barley, rice, rye etc), sugar, vegetable oils and dried legumes (chick peas, lentils, kidney beans etc) are mostly imported.  Even for avid vege gardeners, things like potatoes, kumara, garlic and onions are generally store-bought, supplied from big companies rather than more local soil.

Many of the people and communities I am researching have identified this as a major problem. They are able to grow all the fresh food they could ever want, but most don't even bother growing grains to mill into flour to bake bread and even though legumes are easy to grow, most people only grow fresh beans and lupins for mulch because the sheer quantity of chickpeas or lentils they consume makes it seem like too much hassle to even bother. I've only come across a few examples of people who do go to the effort and they are only growing enough to feed themselves.

Growing staples can be fiddly and most prefer particular climates.  Most grains don't like to get too damp and might do better in the climates in which vineyards abound.  Maybe rice could be grown in the temperate wet-lands up north.  I think the local organic co-op sources chick-peas from down south somewhere.  So if it's so tricky why bother?  Well, let's assume we can only rest on the laurels of contemporary society for so long before we're forced to change.

So, in the hypothetical situation that some global crisis happens and we don't have access to cheap imported foods anymore, what are we going to do?  Well, for a start, the obesity epidemic would no longer be a public concern. Neither would diabetes.  We wouldn't have to worry about the worst dietary evils: processed flour, sugar and trans-fat rich vegetable oil.   In fact, the more I think about it the more positive effects this crisis might have.  On the other hand - the most vulnerable members of society would go from being likely candidates of obesity and diabetes to likely candidates for starvation unless we figure out how to address this critical weakness.  I'm optimistic and envision every spare scrap of usable land overflowing with the food crops we can grow easily here all year round and accessible to anyone who wants it.

It would probably take a major food crisis to get New Zealand on a healthier diet. Never underestimate humanity's ability to adapt to a crisis.  But in the mean-time, there are lots of things we can do to strengthen our food supply.

1. Grow food.  This is obvious, I suppose, but most people don't do it. If you don't have land, find someone who does and garden with them or garden on their land. Land-sharing is an awesome way to produce and share produce. Get involved in community gardens that already exist or talk to people about starting one.

2. Buy local. This is such a popular slogan now, but seriously. The more local food we buy, the more we build healthy community economies rather than sending our cash off-shore. Increased demand for local food means increased supply.

3. Talk about it. You never know what the conversation might yield - you might find out about so-an-so who grows potatoes down the road or get organised with a group of neighbors to share in the growing of staple crops.

4. Track down the few NZ growers of grains and legumes and support them. I have heard of a couple in the South Island. If you know of any, can you please post them in the comments on this page?

5. Figure out how to live without staples.  Invent ways of eating less grains, sugar, veg oil etc. Think up interesting recipes and try them out. I made a chocolate pudding with Kumara a while ago. With all the intollerances going around there is a demand for grain-free recipes. Be creative.

Any other suggestions?


  1. Thanks, this is really good. When thinking about growing food, most people don't get past fruit, vegetables and a few herbs. Concerning when you consider how little of the diet this makes up for many NZers

    Vegetable gardening is seen as opportunistic, you get what you get and go to the supermarket for the rest. It takes a lot of effort to plan more widely, get the info, find the seed and actually do it. It's a lot of work.

    That's why I think staples are the perfect fit for community gardens and networks.

    Really interested in exploring ideas to address this.

    1. Thanks Anna. I love your website. Yes, staple crops are great for community gardening - it's a lot of work to set up big plots but not a huge lot of maintenance. It's quite suited to working bees. I have heard of neighbors who co-ordinate and specialise their growing so someone takes carrots and someone takes onions and they swap the produce, but it sounds like more fun to do it with a group of people.

    2. I'm doing my best to grow as many useful foods as I can in the garden. It does take a lot of work but fits alongside my studies well. I aim to produce an amount of produce that makes a significant dent in bought food, keep bees, develop skills and be able to teach others when I am done. Large local parks could potentially be home to nut trees and other trees too large for the home garden but valuable to the food producing community here. Kumara and potatoes are my two staple challenges! I'll keep you posted on their success later in the year. -Ed

  2. Hi thanks for the great post, Isa. The Koanga Institute grow out (multiply) seed of a few staples, which have adapted to various NZ climates over the years. Rye, millet, quinoa, sorghum and oats spring to mind from their list. The stems of sorghum can be pressed to yield a sweet syrup. Other high energy crops available from their catalogue include shell-out peas (for cooking in soups or grinding into flour), shell out beans (to dry for long term storage), linseed, peanuts, sugar beet (boil down to make syrup - i have tried this with reasonable success) and, of course, many types of corn and maize, of which open-pollinated (non-hybrid) varieties are hard to find anywhere else in NZ these days.

    It does take a lot more planning and space to grow these, but that can be viewed as a challenge, rather than an obstacle. I've harvested around 1kg per square metre yield from black beans and haricot beans, amongst dwarf beans, and about the same from some climbing varieties. I'm sure this could be improved upon with more dedication. Lentils and chickpeas don't yield nearly as much, but are very hardy and self-sustaining plants compared to beans. They're also beautiful, however a pod on a lentil plant contains just *TWO* lentils! There are some people growing lentils large-scale in Canterbury, i believe. Perhaps a reconnaisance trip is required to research harvest techniques. At least legume seeds are ignored by rodents. Quinoa is easy to grow and not too hard to harvest, but wet weather at the ripening stage can be disastrous. Almost all my food growing experiments have been on other people's land as shared projects.

    A simper solution is to eat less foods which are hard to grow/harvest/store/cook. That would be a permaculture solution. We can eat a lot of avocados, root vegetables, eggs, fruit and fresh vegetables, seeds and nuts, and perhaps Rewana bread made of potato kumara or taro. Fermented and other live foods are important. Hemp seed is a good addition to this balanced diet. It can be supplemented by some cow/sheep/goat milk products and meat.

    Phew...that's all my thought for now : )

  3. Awesome initiative Isa!
    I grew and lived in a food forest in the far north for 15 years and am now doing it again in OZ (northern NSW)
    where staples are less of a problem. I grow taro, cassava, yams, kumara ,'Jap' pumpkin and arrowroot for starch; pigeon peas, lima beans and lablab beans for protein; and ginger, turmeric and chilli peppers for flavoring. All of these plants are perennial in the frost free climate here and can be inter-planted with fruit and nut trees and perennial greens to establish permanent stable forest ecosystems full of food.
    In Aotearoa most would struggle though I trialed many things in Northland and some were highly successful.
    I value perennial crops the most because they can survive on there own (like wild food) and be utilized, and can also be cultivated in great quantity if the proverbial shit hits the fan.
    By far the most promising perennial staples for NZ's cooler climate would be the Andean tubers. Technically this includes of course potatoes, some varieties of which can left in the ground without building up disease (purple spuds are still found in old middens from time to time), but more important are the other Inca tubers, Oca, Mashua, Ulluco, Arracacha, Achira and Yacon.
    Achira (Peruvian arrowroot) in particular is valuable because it's high quality starch can be made into flour. Indeed there was an industry in Queensland decades ago making the original Arrowroot biscuits.
    It is very easy to grow (will naturalize, though it doesn't set seed in NZ so no threat to the bush)
    Mashua will spread happily in orchards and is a good companion plant helping suppress soil nematodes. It's also highly productive.
    Choko is an under rated plant with edible fruits,seeds, greens and tubers that are similar to potatoes.
    Scarlet runner beans are perennial and can be shelled out for winter use.
    In terms of annuals, the obvious staple crops that are easier to process are maize, pumpkins - including hull-less ones for pepitas - and summer beans (the famed '3 sisters of native american cultures) and as edible winter legumes for soil nourishment the best are broad beans and edible sweet white lupins (as opposed to the blue ones)
    I live now at Starseed Gardens in Byron Bay and we are developing an Ethnobotanical school and teaching/demonstration Garden. Check out our website at starseedgardens.com
    From time to time I run workshops on food forest culture and establishment.
    Cheers for now

  4. All mainstream NZ breads in the supermarket(including Vogels) contain Canola Oil and Soya Flour, which are really artificial foods previously unknown to mankind. It gets worse - 70% of canola and soy (globally) is of genetically-modified origin, including Australian-produced soy. According to Food Safety Australia and New Zealand, GM foods in which there is no "GM DNA" escape the requirement for labelling as such in NZ - i.e. flours and oils, where the "DNA" is milled or cooked out. So there's a good chance that ALL NZ bread contains GMOs. Write to your local bread supplier and ask them the question. I tried this with Vogels - no reply. Try this with the large supermarket chains and you get a similar deathly silence.

  5. We buy stoneground organic wholewheat flour from Ngamara Farm near Marton, which is great as it is within 100km of our house in Palmerston North. We also do but from NZ Biograins in Ashburton, more than 100km but NZ at least. They import some grains but list country of origin.

  6. The staples you mention are really things we should look at cutting from diet due to the toxic nature of most of them. Incorporting more nourishing foods from organic sources provides a much better diet. Full cream (preferably raw) milk; free range, grass fed animal meat, eggs and organs; sweet pototoes and vegetables and the odd bit of fruit, provides a nourishing and healthy diet. We can source all of these things right here. The only things I eat that are imported, are rice and coconut oil, both of which wouldn't grow here I don't think.

    1. I largely agree with you, especially because I don't digest most grains and legumes very well. Our current social dependence on wheat and sugar would have to be somehow compensated for. Grains and legumes are an easy way of feeding the masses.

  7. Hi Isa, i discovered your blog while researching foraging in NZ (I've ordered Johanna Knox's book), and i must admit, these issues have always concerned me
    i used to live in Wgtn, i now live in Crete, Greece, where it is a very well-established custom to grow food, buy local, and talk a lot about it; well before the crisis, i was buying nationally produced staples (they really do taste better and cook better than the imported stuff
    figuring out how to live without staples is not on the agenda though, because certain regions in Greece produce certain goods, which are then 'traded' so to speak among regions - eg rice is produced in northern Greece, tomatoes are produced in all year round in southern greece; hence, i would rule out living without staples, esp since they are more easily stored; we can eat less of them, but only if we have enough of other food

    1. Hi Maria. I am interested to learn that rice is grown in Greece. I wasn't aware of that. I would like to learn more about local food in Greece. Yes, staples are easy to store and versatile in cooking.

    2. hi guys ... which crop you feel better for ur health