22 Oct 2020

Food Hui hears of need for small-scale food producers

7:28 am on 22 October 2020

Anutosh Penny Cusack had a simple mission - find a restaurant that sold fish caught from fishers based in her home city, Auckland. She wound up with an empty plate.

empty plate.

File image. Photo: 123RF

Despite New Zealand's reputation for high standard produce, some in the food industry say much of what we eat at home isn't always local, competitively priced, or even particularly healthy.

"There are actually no artisanal fishers fishing out of Auckland anymore," Cusack said.

"So the real problem in Auckland is there's no fish - there's no fishers. So I didn't end up eating any local fish."

Cusack aired her concerns at the sixth annual Food Hui this week in Wellington, which brought together more than 500 people from the farming, fishing and hospitality sectors.

During a panel, Southlander Nate Smith told the room that small-scale fishing operations were "more endangered than the Māui dolphin".

Speaking to RNZ afterwards, Smith said the industry favoured large commercial players but more small, local fishers would help create competitive pricing.

"A lot of little stuff is much better than a handful of big," Smith said.

"When you start to add lots of little, you start to have a price range that helps everybody - make it more affordable for your own people in your own country, and make it more affordable for restaurants to on-sell and make their profit margins a little bit bigger."

The third generation fisherman founded sustainable Southland company Gravity Fishing, which is working to increase transparency and decrease wastage.

Nate Smith runs Southland-based Gravity Fishing.

Nate Smith. Photo: RNZ / Rachel Thomas

He said to get one kilogram of fillet for blue cod, he needed to catch 2.6kg of the fish.

"So effectively for every thousand kilograms you're catching - you're throwing away 1600kg of fish product over the side. And that, for me, was a big thing that needed to change pretty much overnight.

"You need to use 100 percent of that wild resource because it is very precious, so you need to maximise what you're doing with that. And that's why I don't cut fish anymore."

His company sends whole, fresh fish to chefs and encourages them to use as many bits as possible - fillets for plates, frames and heads for sauces and flavours.

"Everybody's having issues buying fish, in our country and it's crazy - we're an island in the middle of the Pacific, surrounded by water, and yet kaimoana's one of the hardest things that we can get our hands on."

He said if New Zealand wants to sustain its fishing industry, officials need to "listen to the people at grassroots, the people doing the mahi".

There's a strong local movement on land too.

Wellington baker and miller Sam Forbes established Shelly Bay Baker two years ago, and business is booming.

Sam Forbes at the Shelly Bay Baker Flour mill

Sam Forbes at the Shelly Bay Baker Flour mill. Photo: Supplied

During a panel, he told delegates he even cashed in on the flour shortage in the pandemic, allowing people to buy flour ground freshly in his mill in Miramar.

"I think every New Zealander wants to support New Zealand-made produce and Covid just enhanced that. The demand is there," he told RNZ.

Many shoppers did not understand there's a huge nutritional difference between fresh loaves and mass-produced supermarket loaves from flour ground weeks earlier.

"It's about just looking at flour in a different perspective - a $2 loaf versus an $8 loaf, y'know. [People are] paying for it in their health, but they don't realise. They think they're getting a better deal, but there is a price to pay."

The Food Hui, held at Te Papa, was hosted by the Restaurant Association of New Zealand and Eat New Zealand.

Eat New Zealand's chief executive Angela Clifford said the pandemic was causing people to think again about what they ate, and that was coming through at the hui.

"I think there's a feeling of re-set. So as we climb back out of this situation, it's about working out how we might do things differently.

"If we understand our food and where it comes from and what it is for our growers and catchers and producers, then we're going to have a much better outcome for everyone."