Food evolution and health in Aotearoa

Our focus at Local Food Northland is about the shift from industrial food systems to sustainable food systems. For us to better understand our current food system reality, we look back to look forward. This is the first of three posts to explore the tides of history that have shaped our food system.

Two hundred years ago was mostly populated by Māori and they ate mostly fresh food – some was dried for preservation or perhaps fermented. Over the last two centuries our dietary patterns have changed dramatically. In conjunction with changes in health care we have longer life spans, but the consequence of our twenty first century diet is an alarming increase in diet-related disease. As my colleague at NorthTec, Nigel Studdart writes:

We are what we eat and what we are becoming is an increasingly overweight and unhealthy population.

There are three major drivers of dietary change in Aotearoa, the impacts of colonisation, industrialisation and consumerism.

food evolution aotearoa


Before the arrival of Europeans, Māori were isolated in Aotearoa and there was therefore no imported food. Neither was food processed beyond cooking, drying or fermenting.

1700s garden

This image from Te Ara is an artist’s impression of a 1700s garden in the Auckland region (drawing by Nancy Tichborne). 

Gardens were community enterprises with crops grown including taro, hue (gourds) and kumara. Helen Leach’s book 1,000 Years of Gardening in New Zealand documents pre-colonial gardening. It includes a drawing by one of Captain Cook’s crew of an East Coast garden with kumara, yam, taro and gourd.

According to Te Ara (The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand) Māori had a life expectancy of about 30. This is low, but better than that of Britain at the time. But “by 1891 the estimated life expectancy of Māori men was 25 and that of women was just 23 (Te Ara). We cannot attribute this to diet, as disease, alienation from land, war, and war’s inevitable consequence, poverty, saw population decline and life expectancy reduce.

Māori adapted quickly to the new foods bought by Europeans, soon producing large quantities of food including potatoes, fruit and meat. By the mid 1800s, Māori were producing flour in their own mills from their own wheat.

Imported foods began to supplement local diets and the appetite for sugar was such that the Chelsea Sugar Refinery was established in 1883. Sugar is increasingly associated with the incidence of non-communicable disease (NCDs). In a food environment where Māori were struggling with the aftermath of war, European diseases, land alienation and the impact of tobacco and alcohol, sugar became another health burden. The world view of the colonialists was shaped in part by social Darwinism and assumption of the innate superiority of Europeans, especially English. In this context, Dr Isaac Featherson said it was the duty of Europeans to “smooth down … [the] dying pillow’ of the Māori race.” Thus the food landscape for Māori in the second half of the nineteenth century was not conducive to health.

The communal approach to gardening was probably one factor that enabled Māori to sustain and recover the population.

Maori population graph

This graph (from Te Ara) shows Māori population from 1841 to 2006.The decline post-Treaty took almost a century to recover. Arguably, the homogenising of assumptions of colonisation continued largely uncontested and dissenting voices unheard through the middle decades of the twentieth century.  The Māori renaissance of the late twentieth century laid the foundation for reshaping the food environment, but the forces of industrialisation and consumerism invoked another form of colonisation that dominated the food landscape as we shall see in the next two posts on this topic.





4 thoughts on “Food evolution and health in Aotearoa

  1. A good start but could be more accurate… We bought a lot of imported food here as we were not isolated but constantly travelled back and forth around the Pacific for kai… ti pore, kiore, taro, hue, many varieties of potatoe were all imported. And we definitely fermented food, it was a big side of getting our probiotics and we still do today. If you need a hand with accurate info I can help. I have elders who are still alive that grew up entirely on Maori kai


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