New Zealand’s Food Bill: trade food, go to jail

New Zealand Food Bill

New Zealand’s laws to ban citizens from trading home grown food has chilling effects on hyper-local foodsheds and urban farming.

In response to a growing demand for urban agriculture, and an ever lengthening list of threats to food security, city governments all over the world have been faced with the challenge to augment city planning and municipal codes to address the introduction of the rural into the urban. Not all of these changes, however, have been in support of urban agriculture.  Such is the case of New Zealand’s Food Bill 160-2, introduced in 2010, which has imposed abhorrent restrictions to trading home grown food in the name of international food safety. The bill has extended the government’s authority over any business or individual who sells, barters, donates or offers food as a trade sample.  The definition of food has been stretched beyond simply produce and value-added items (such as jams and preserves) , but also to seeds, natural, herbal based medicines, minerals, and any nutrient or ingredient which goes into a beverage (such as garden herbs to make tea). The Food Bill and its equally repugnant companion, the Natural Health Products Bill, are a result of New Zealand’s compliance to the Codex Alimentarius, a set of international food regulations and guidelines which members of the World Trade Organization are subject to.  This means that food regulations meant to address food for export now apply to all local food production. The Codex Alimentarius seeks to establish a unified set of international food regulations so that consumers can be assured that foods imported into their country meet the same level of safety requirements as their own domestic products.  The codex is not mandatory for participating WTO members, however, many like New Zealand have adopted the set of standards as a basis for their own legislation.

Nobody escapes the taxman

Essentially, the Food Bill makes selling or trading homegrown fruit and vegetables a criminal offense, worthy of 5 years imprisonment and penalty fees of up to $100,000, unless you gain exemption or become registered as a food business. Under the previous bill, small-scale food swapping, whether it was produce from your backyard or preserves made from garden surplus, was considered a hobby exempted from taxation. Now, an individual is considered a food business if they undertake any activity that trades in food.  Along with these nonsensical alterations to definitions, in the eyes of the government, “sale” now includes bartering. This means, if you would like to trade some homegrown tomatoes with a neighbor for a few of their oranges, or perhaps your honey for a friend’s jam, you have to register as a food business subject to taxation, regulation, and possible registration fees.


Furthermore, making such activities against the law if unregistered means that all it would take is a call from a competitor or disgruntled neighbor to find a Food Safety Officer at your doorstep. Food Safety Officers are unsettling for several reasons:
  • They are privately contracted
  • They are not required to have a search warrant to enter and search your home or property
  • They are exempted from civil and criminal law
To note, exemptions are made for small-scale food businesses, only if they sell or trade homemade food directly to the customer and do not employ anyone to assist in food production.  However, you must apply for exemption before you can trade your homemade jam legally, and there is a possibility you can be denied.

Controlling so much more than food

One might not think of home grown food in need of regulation as including “fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, nuts, cereal grains, seeds, fungi, grasses, or any components extracted or gathered from horticultural produce,” but the drafters of the Food Bill certainly did.  Produce is a given when defining what should be considered as food, but should the seeds and seedlings that it comes from be as well? By regulating the sale and trade of seeds, the government is heavily restricting what kind of food will be available in the future for the public to grow.  Instead of swapping heirloom varieties with neighbors and green thumbed friends, control over plant variety is instead being handed over to seed companies, thus greatly reducing biodiversity and the public’s control over what they can eat. Urban agriculture increases food security in cities which are completely reliant on outside inputs to sustain themselves.  It has been calculated that cities have around three days worth of supplies before kitchens, pantries, grocery stores, and warehouses completely empty of all food to feed city residents. Free communal food exchanges of homegrown produce have sprung up in Europe and the United States in response to threats to food security.  By restricting trade of our own food, the Food Bill has undermined the public’s attempts at becoming more self-sufficient—handing over control of the food supply instead to large food producers and distributors. Read our article about Santa Barbara’s communal food exchange.