The horticulture industry relies on carbon dioxide to accelerate plant growth.
The price of fresh produce may be pushed up by an outage at the only remaining domestic industrial facility that produces liquid carbon dioxide for the food industry.
Todd Energy became the only domestic commercial producer of food-grade carbon dioxide last year, following the permanent closure of the Marsden Point oil refinery in March.
But Todd chief executive Mark Macfarlane said it had been forced to temporarily shut down its plant, which is attached to its Kapuni natural gas field in Taranaki, late last month because of a safety issue.
Carbon dioxide is often used to preserve packaged meat, cheese and ready-prepared meals, accelerate the growth of tomatoes and salad vegetables in greenhouses, and to put the “fizz” into craft beers.
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Food and Grocery Council chief executive Raewyn Bleakley said it was keeping a watch on the situation.
Roelf Schreuder, production manager at NZ Gourmet, one of the country’s largest fruit and vegetable growers, said the price of carbon dioxide had risen 10 times to about $3.50 a kilo since the closure of the Marsden refinery, pushing up its own costs by tens of thousands of dollars a week.
“We are using the minimum of what we should be using, but come winter time we will need more.”
The biggest jump was in fruit and vegetables, up 20% compared to November 2021.
Tomatoes and peppers were in low supply because growers were pulling out, Schreuder said.
“Vegetables will be more expensive again. It is very sad that in New Zealand we have got the best soil and the best climate and enough rainfall and we can’t produce and feed our own population.”
Carbon dioxide can be imported, but that is usually an expensive option because it needs to be transported in heavy, metal cylinders.
The Kapuni plant is expected to resume operation, but Todd is not providing any indication at the moment as to when.
The plant was previously closed for scheduled maintenance between June and August, causing cost-rises for companies including Tegel and warnings of product shortages.
But the company said production then resumed in September and the current outage was not as a result of the continuation of that maintenance work.
Macfarlane said in a statement that Todd had become aware of “an issue within the plant that had potential safety implications”.
“The safe operation of the plant is our priority. Unfortunately, that means the plant is temporarily closed while we work through engineering solutions.”
While the temporary closure would be “concerning for carbon dioxide customers”, safety must be prioritized, he said.
NZ Gourmet has been working on an alternative solution for its business that would see it used waste wood gasifiers manufactured by Christchurch start-up Hot Lime Labs to produce CO2 for its greenhouses, but Schreuder said it was currently waiting on a sufficient supply of those machines.