Food Security – Rethinking the Source 

“When all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. (The World Food Summit of 1996)

This article was written in 2019, long before we entered these crazy pandemic times. There is now so much talk of supply chain issues, large scale crop losses, and rising production costs. The cost of living is rising at a horrendous rate and then there is the talk of financial collapse… you might say that will never be allowed to happen, but we all would probably have thought the same about nation and even world wide lockdowns three years ago.

Our world has changed, we need to adapt to survive well in it. We need to build our resilience and self-reliance, establish food sources locally and ideally in our own yards. For those of you already on the land think about how you can close the loop, reducing your reliance on external inputs. Learn the skills to produce what you need from your own resources and take back control over your food security.

If there was a major disruption to the food supply network would you cope?

Civil Defence tells us that we need food and water for at least three days. Their recommendations are…

Non-perishable food (canned or dried food)

Food, formula and drinks for babies and small children, Water for drinking. At least 3 litres per person, per day

Water for washing and cooking

A primus or gas barbeque to cook on

A can opener

Check and replace food and water every twelve months. Consider stocking a two-week supply of food and water for prolonged emergencies such as a pandemic.

This maybe fine for a short-term situation but what if it was an extended event. For those of you who live rurally assistance may be a long time coming, roads may remain blocked for days, weeks, months…

In 1988 Cyclone Bola hit New Zealand, at that time my family was living near Matawai, a small rural settlement between Gisborne and Opotiki. The road was washed out at the bridge near our property and slips closed all other access roads. We were cut off. With no power the farming community rallied, setting up generators at a central location to run chest freezers so the local households did not lose all their frozen food stuffs. A community BBQ was held to use up any food which needed to be eaten and also boost morale among the locals. It was during one of our visits to the neighbor’s farm, about three days after being isolated, that a small plane landed and delivered supplies for the families. I remember one of the canned items was lambs’ tongues, a strange thing to be given in an emergency drop, but very amusing for us kids. We were cut off for over a week, with a school teacher unfortunately, and without power for about 3 days, but I do not remember any real hardship besides having to attend shearing quarters school for about 2 weeks.  A ford was formed across the river once the water level had dropped low enough, and this was passable by car when the river was low. Later a Bailey bridge was set up, but the actual bridge took many months to be repaired.

This is just one example of an event; the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes are other examples of disaster suddenly hitting, but the impacts have lasted for years. Recently the Hikurangi subduction zone has been in the headlines as scientists prepare the public for a future rupture of the fault. ‘The Hikurangi subduction zone runs offshore from the east of Gisborne down to the top of the South Island and “poses a significant earthquake and tsunami risk to the entire east coast of New Zealand”, says Dr Wallace.’ When this earthquake occurs, it has the potential to devastate New Zealand from the East Cape to the lower South Island and inland to areas like the Manawatu. The most recent example of this type of large earthquake is Japan 2011, imagine if that happened here… If it impacted such a large area how would we cope, there would be wide spread infrastructure damage of a scale New Zealand has never seen before, major food producing areas could be wiped out, add to that the physical and emotional trauma suffered by much of our population and it would take many, many years to recover.

Living in the rural Manawatu these are our main risk factors, flood, earthquake and snow event. During the 2017 snow drop, for some, power was out for weeks, roads blocked and communications were out. These are localised events and the Councils, power and roading companies struggle to keep up with demand. What if it was a larger event?

Do we really want to be at the mercy of an aerial food drop? Stuck waiting for the government to come to the rescue?

So, what can we do on a personal and a community scale?

We will start with location, being aware of the risk factors within your area. This is an important factor, because if you are in a high-risk zone e.g. flood zone, low coastal, unstable land or living in a city, you should follow the Civil Defence guide lines, because in a major event evacuation is probably your best bet. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put other solutions in place, it is just the reality of where you live. While evaluating your property and the surrounding community or environment, we also need to be aware of other risk factors. Fuel shortage, food supply issues (apparently there is only enough food for approximately three days in supermarkets), social unrest, financial collapse, pandemic and major power outage (EMP). I say this not to be a doomsayer but to create thought, many of these events have occurred in our past and could occur again, anytime. If you are serious about food security and resilience than you will need to consider these scenarios.

Now, Water, this comes before food. You can go 3 weeks without food but you cannot go three days without water. Where does your water come from? Town supply, roof catchment, spring, bore? What will you do if there is no power? All households should have some form of water storage, even if it is just a couple drums collecting rainwater from roof run off. But ideally the household would be able to source their yearly water use by means not reliant on electricity. This would mean adequate rainwater storage, a gravity fed spring water source, a well with manual draw up, or diversion from a creek or river etc. Electricity is a great convenience while we have it, but having non-power options which are also integrated into our systems are of great benefit. Having management over your own water collection also allows for prompt resolution if a problem emerges. The Havelock North water contamination event from 2016 comes to mind.

Food; while having a store of dried and canned foods may be beneficial in the short term it is not sustainable long term. Though having a decent supply of sea salt or kelp etc. should be considered for flavour and minerals. Producing food from your own land is a necessary factor in developing food security. The most obvious home food source is the vegetable garden, but this needs a re-think too, while rows of vegetables all nicely tilled and tended may be what comes to mind, this may not be the most practical and productive use of space. Some of the most nutritious plants in your garden are often classed as weeds. Dandelion, Puha, Fat hen, Plantain, Purslane, Stinging Nettle, Chickweed etc. These should all be encouraged, not removed (though management and selective thinning is recommended, because they will take over) Also the reliance on external inputs, fertilisers, pest and disease controls, seeds and mulch needs to be addressed.

Saving your own seeds or allowing plants to self-seed not only removes the need to purchase seed but also allows plants to adapt to your specific growing environment. Many pests and diseases can be managed by natural means, improved soil health or simply growing plants which are more resilient to your climate. Fertilisers can usually be sourced locally, if not from your own property, compost, manure, humanure (from composting toilets), rock dust, lime, wood ash, animal remains, fish remains, seaweed etc. Mulch can also be gathered locally or sourced on your own land, green manure plants can be grown as living ground cover, harvested for mulch and used to attract beneficial insects. Spent plants and pruning’s can be chopped and dropped in place to cover the ground and return their nutrients back to the soil. Using mixed plantings rather than large mono crop areas can also be of use in soil coverage and pest management.  Read more here, The Survival garden

Perennial vegetables such as Artichokes, Jerusalem Artichokes, Asparagus, NZ spinach, Day-lilies etc. create food for less work and disturbance of the soil, allowing the ground to establish networks for health. If used around annual garden areas they also provide shelter and some can support climbers such as peas or beans. Herbs, beneficial insect plants and edible flowers integrated in to your vegetable areas create diversity and assist in establishing a healthy ecosystem. Diversity is very important, a case of ‘not putting all your eggs in one basket as’ the saying goes. This allows more security if a crop should fail, for example this year we have had no plums, a hard frost hit as the trees were in blossom and wiped out the entire crop. But by planting more than we need and with a staggered blossoming/fruiting time this risk should be mitigated and if we happen to have a bumper year then there is a bounty to be shared.

Fruits and nuts can also be integrated into the vegetable area, smaller deciduous shrubs and trees can provide shade during hot summers but allow the sun through in winter. While larger trees and evergreens can be used to filter winds or planted around the southern side to create a micro-climate to protect less hardy plants. There is much information out there on creating a sustainable garden, edible garden or food forest, re-thinking the paradigm of what is a productive food garden. By embracing these concepts, the garden becomes better equipped to provide year-round and adapt to climatic changes.

But the fruit, nut, and other plant sourced foods can extend beyond our boundaries, wild harvested or foraged foods can often be found. Being aware of where these sources are, within easy travel, can greatly increase your harvest. Whether it be mushrooms, watercress, blackberries or naturalised fruit and nut trees these are all valuable food sources.

Another source of nutrition is fats and protein, for vegans that will have to fit into the garden, but for the rest of us it extends further afield. However, that said, through the raising of small animals, chickens, quail, ducks, rabbits, Guinea pigs etc. much of, if not all of, your eggs and meat can be produced from a small area like your average sized section. Dairy on the other hand will need more room. But this is where forming relationships with neighbours can really help, trading fruit and vegetables for milk or meat, while this maybe frowned upon by ‘the powers that be’, the reality is when it becomes a necessity who cares!

However, Goats (if very well contained) and milking sheep take up far less land and food than the average cow, if you want to be self-reliant in this area too. We currently have a low-line cow destined to be our little milker, she is probably a third the size of your average cow.  Making simple cheeses, butter and yogurts will extend the shelf life of your milk even without power-based refrigeration. Though a cool room/store would certainly help here. By choosing smaller breeds or animals this also assists in the need to store meat, though traditionally most larger animals are hung for several days to weeks anyway, which is not so much of an issue over winter in cooler areas. But over the warmer months, again, a cool store is of great benefit. Investigating and learning about the storage of foods e.g. pumpkins, potatoes, root crops, apples, cheese and meats without the use of power can greatly increase your level of food security.  Read more here, Food storage and preservation.

It also pays to consider the feed aspect of your livestock, setting in place fodder and forage systems so you eliminate the need to buy in feed, Kune Kune pigs are a good example of a more sustainable livestock as they are a grazing pig and do not need to be supplemented unless grass growth slows off too much, but this can be catered for with the use of pumpkins and fodder beet etc. stored for winter feed.  Read more here, Fodder and Forage

When it comes to meat there is also the extended area, wild caught rabbit, turkey, eel, trout or other fish species, shellfish, deer, goat, pig and of course possum. Though it would pay to be aware of recent poisoning/baiting which may have taken place in your area and to source seafood and freshwater fish etc. from ‘clean’ areas. Contaminated food is not something to be taken lightly….

Then of course there is bugs. Huhu grubs have a long history as food in New Zealand but there are many others such as grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas and cockroaches. Mealworms, soldier fly larvae and fly maggots are often bred for high protein animal feed, again these do not take up much room and provide valuable nutrition, both as a food source in themselves and also to improve the quality of your eggs and poultry meat. Learning which insects are edible as well as fungi, native plants and in fact any plants, are essential skills to develop for food security.

This brings us to my final major aspects for food security, skills and mindset. You need to learn how to grow food, how to raise livestock, how to process it, how to cook it if needed and how to extend the harvest by simple preservation. But you also need to re-think the way you eat, simply, seasonally and without waste. Also, as nutritionally as possible, for some foods this will be fresh picked, but for cooked foods the best ways are soups, stews or casseroles as all the nutrients are contained with the pot. There are also some foods which need special ‘treatment’ before eating to make them more digestible, so understanding traditional methods of soaking, fermenting and lime treating etc. will allow foods to be more nutritious therefore you will need to eat less. With our modern diets we tend to over eat due to the lack of nutrient in many foods today, this can include meats, fruits and veges if grown/raised on nutrient deficient soils.

So, at what level is your food security?

Do you have access to clean water without the use of electricity?

Can you produce food all year round?

Do you have access to enough fats and proteins to keep you healthy?

Do you have the skills to feed yourself and your family should the worst happen?

Further reading:

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