Who’s to blame for flood damaged food? 

by | Feb 2, 2023 | Opinion

As the backwash recedes on Auckland’s flood, the backlash begins. Pukekohe’s growers are some of the most affected – so who’s to blame when food goes to waste? 

It was heartbreaking this week to see piles of onions and potatoes, freshly harvested and ready to eat, strewn across paddocks and along roadsides. The wasted crop is just one more blow to growers already experiencing a poor season due to the wetter-than-usual summer. 

This is probably the worst time for it to hit because a lot of the crops are lifted and sitting on top of the soil,” Pukekohe Vegetable Growers Association president Kirit Makan told the NZ Herald.

It’s also a blow to grocers and customers, who are experiencing record price rises for food.

It’s too early to calculate the extent of the loss. One grower told Fed Farmers he’d lost 2000 tonnes of produce on Friday night. Gemma Carroll, spokesperson for Potatoes NZ, says the loss has yet to be counted but the region is the main source of onions for New Zealand and a significant supplier of potatoes. The disaster will unquestionably contribute to price rises, she says.


Crying: onions pile high in Pukekohe Photo: John Weekes (NZ Herald); used with permission


Who’s to blame?

Could we get away with describing it as an Act of God? The event surely would qualify. The volume of rain on Friday was staggering, equivalent in some parts of Auckland, including Franklin where the onions grow, to a month’s worth in one hour. 

This graph shows the extent of it. (thank you Newsroom).



Blaming a Supreme Being somehow doesn’t cut it these days. Many, like Nick Cave sings, don’t believe in an interventionist God and those that do mostly cling to the belief that He (She? Non-Binary? All three in one?) is a benevolent force sending rain upon the righteous and the wicked in equal measure. There was a shouty preacher braving the elements in my local shops on Saturday who argued otherwise – but I count him as a minor prophet in this context.

In our modern world we must find a cause. The most obvious is that wicked girl-twin La Nina. This is the third year of the oscillating weather pattern which collects warm vapour from the west Pacific, spirals it high into the atmosphere and dumps all of it on West Auckland. Scientists predict a return next year to her brother El Nino, precipitating drier, hotter summers, which suit some and parch others



But there are other reasons. Some Pukekohe growers pointed to the poor maintenance of silted-up culverts. These had not been cleared for a decade, they said. 

Others blame decades of under-investment in stormwater infrastructure. Eleven beaches in Auckland are unswimmable right now as overflows force stormwater and sewerage to disgorge onto the coastline. Most of the pipes were simply not big enough to handle the ‘aquatic plume’  and many pipes are repeat offenders, with the same streets flooding the last time La Nina took a dump. 

Then there’s the question of leadership, or lack of it. Everyone is enjoying – especially us media drongos – putting the gumboot into hapless mayor Wayne Brown, whose bumbling, defensive, and meanspirited appearances stand in contrast to the high-vis reassurances of the new PM, Chris Hipkins. Brown’s personal failings are spectacular but they reinforce what we all suspect: that he represents a bumbling, defensive, meanspirited bureaucracy that sits atop an underfunded city infrastructure.

You get the government you deserve, and we’ve undervalued civic governance for decades.


Climate for change

The blame game will work its way through the system but if it was a multi-choice I would choose ‘Option E: all the above’, with the added x-factor of climate change. 

What we’ve just experienced in the north has been predicted for years. A NIWA climate assessment written in 2016 reads like this weekend’s weather forecast:


“ Extreme weather events such as storms, heatwaves and heavy rainfall are likely to be more frequent and intense. Large increases in extreme rainfall are expected everywhere in the country, particularly in Northland due to a projected increase in ex-tropical cyclones.”

In Southland, they’re experiencing a recording-breaking dry patch close to being considered a drought. Seven years ago NIWA said: 

Drought is predicted to increase in frequency and severity, particularly along the eastern side of the Southern Alps.”


Climate scientist James Renwick says global heating is exacerbating the storms. “The type of storm that brought the mayhem was not especially remarkable. Plenty of similar storms have passed through Auckland. But, as the climate continues to warm, the amount of water vapour in the air increases.”

And it’s vapour at issue. One degree of warming in the air translates, on average, to about 7 percent more water vapour in that air. Says Renwick:


“When a storm comes along, it can translate to much more than a 7 percent increase in rainfall. Air “converges” (is drawn in) near the Earth’s surface into a storm system. So all that moister air is brought together, then “wrung out” to deliver the rain.

“While the atmosphere now holds 7 percent more water vapour, this convergence of air masses means the rain bursts can be 10 percent or even 20 percent heavier.

“I am confident climate change contributed significantly to the incredible volume of rain that fell so quickly in Auckland this time.”


So far, we are about 1.1 degrees higher since 1900 – and on track to what, 1.7, 2, or God forbid, 2.5 degrees?


Make food and climate friends

Seeing Pukekohe’s finest produce floating in a tide of filth was depressing. It could have been food. It could have been income. Growing vegetables is God’s work. Perhaps second only to sweeping your neighbour’s flooded basement or doing what Wendy Zhou from Perfectly Imperfect does, collecting unwanted produce and distributing to those in need. Wendy was busy this week.

We must find a way to grow food in a heating climate. It will mean bigger stormwater drains and well-maintained culverts. It will mean understanding the science of climate and investing in the science of growing. It will mean doing everything we can to slow the growth in emissions and climate heating. Every 0.1 degree matters.

More than anything it will demand leadership that comprehends the challenge of the new normal.

Blaming God, culverts and drongos just won’t cut it. 


About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

Related Posts