Growers see wake-up call in fuel crisis
If the jet fuel crisis had occurred when New Zealand’s horticulture crops were in full swing, exporters would have been fighting for airfreight space to get perishable produce to their global customers.
Fortunately, the damage to the sole pipeline carrying jet fuel to Auckland was repaired before most horticulture crops headed into their crucial export period, but what would have happened if it had been a month later?
Geoff Lewis from Tendertips Asparagus in the Horowhenua was on the brink of exporting this season’s crop to Asia and predominantly Japan and says his business is dependent on getting the highly-perishable vegetable to long-term customers as quickly as possible.
“If it had occurred during our export season for asparagus, we would have had to compete with other perishable export products, especially seafood, for the remaining space to Asia. Once spring comes, it’s always quite a demand for space up to Asia.”
Exporters with perishable goods are dependent on airfreight and though there are a good range of carriers these days, Lewis says there are not a lot of direct flights to Japan where most of their asparagus is destined. It means they often have to link flights and the length of layover can be critical for asparagus.
Another crop with a short shelf life is cherries and in Central Otago, Tim Jones from 45 South says they truck out 40t of fruit every night at the peak of the season, with up to 40% flown out of Auckland to export markets. Reliable airfreight is crucial to the business.
“If it had happened in January, we would be nervous as hell,” he says.
NZ Hothouse at Dury is just 20 minutes south of Auckland airport when the traffic is flowing well and while it had not reached its main export season when it would have been flying out tomatoes every day, its managing director Simon Watson says it still managed to export fruit without disruption during the fuel shortage.
“We’ve got a fairly good communication line into the airlines, so effectively it hasn’t disrupted us and wouldn’t have because Air New Zealand changed fuel strategies to make sure it had enough.”
It wasn’t a perfect scenario, he says, but the airline seemed to have handled the crisis well. However, he says it was a wake-up call to authorities to build more fuel storage to avoid future problems. That may be a fait accompli anyway, he says, due to the increasing number of flights heading to the country with
tourists which must put more demands on fuel infrastructure.
Lewis says increased fuel storage is more likely to happen than another pipeline following the fuel crisis, simply because the resource consent process would make it very hard to get permission for a pipeline. Either way, distribution was critical for perishable goods and critical also to play a part in feeding high-population centres.
“Distribution runs the world. We have such a short supply of stored food in all our countries with high populations so they become increasingly dependent on freight. The amount of food held up our sleeves is getting shorter and shorter. The high population centres are very vulnerable and they’re entirely dependent on freight to feed them.”
In a country like Japan where about 30 million people live in and around Tokyo and produce just 1.5% of their food, food has to be shipped in from somewhere every day, he says.
“The fuel crisis in New Zealand does have a small impact on the food supply of a number of destinations throughout the Pacific Rim.”