Ag and hort forum tries to get off the farm

The intention is right, the understanding is apparent and the realisation is clear that our primary industries need to be less commodity, more market.

The question remains how.

A forum organised by the NZ Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science in Wellington reinforced that our economy is just as much as ever living off our ability to convert sunshine, soil and fresh air into protein products. (Indeed, David Lange was ‘thanked’ for suggesting back in the 1980s that agriculture was a sunset industry – perhaps changing the mindsets of a potential generation of would-be scientists for the sector!). Some audio recorded by SciBlogs Kent Atkinson is here.

But, as Rod Oram pointed out when crunching some numbers for the 120 attendees, agriculture ain’t sustainable. We are not a low cost place to produce milk or meat. Our land is very expensive. Oram said that even the family interests of Fonterra chairman Henry van der Heyden have bought land for dairying in Missouri, USA. Its price is a third that of New Zealand’s and their milk price is higher. (Fair enough to take our technologies over to America, but shouldn’t NZ brand our key comparative advantage – a responsible pastoralism method?)

Oram said that the price ceilings for milk powder and meat are probably being reached. Substitutes such as soy powder become more attractive, permanently given the costs of changing inputs for a manufacturer, beyond current levels. NZ shouldn’t then expect a continued run of ever increasing agricultural prices.
The number of young people studying primary industry science is way below replacement requirements for our major industries – agriculture, horticulture, forestry and aquaculture.

Universally the speakers, from former agriculture minister Jim Anderton to Royal Society of NZ president Garth Carnaby, Fed Farmers vice-president William Rolleston and before-mentioned Oram all said we must add more value to what we produce.

Anderton made an analogy about ‘cracking’ milk (much as crude oil if refined to its constituent ‘bits’). But later, questioner Kevin Marshall and speaker Oram both agreed that Fonterra’s (mostly off-farm) R&D spend of about $125 million a year out of total revenues of about $20 billion is not really enough. It was pointed out that Nestle has just announced an incremental investment in nutriceuticals of US$500 million!
Because, at the heart of what everyone is talking about, is it is only off-farm; more cleverly using the raw materials produced from our land, water and brains, that we can create more value.

We’ve failed, so far, to make ‘invention’ at this level seem sexy. We’ve failed, so far, to show potential investors (including farmers) that there’s money to be made in some of these areas. And we’ve failed, so far, to partner up with those (usually overseas) entities who could help take products to market – and share the value-added component.

The forum n a sense was too stuck on the farm; even while it didn’t want to be.

We’re good, indeed world-leaders at the growing. In spite of agriculture’s current commodity boom, a sustainable economic and environmental future is only possible by becoming world-leaders at transforming the raw materials we naturally produce into products that manufacturers and consumers need or desire.

We have a long way to go – though such a forum is at least a place to start airing such concerns.


About sticknz

sticK is by Peter Kerr, a writer for hire. I have a broad science and technology background and interest, with an original degree in agricultural science. My writing speciality is making the complex understandable. I am available for outside consultancy work, and for general discussions of converting a good idea into something positive
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3 Responses to Ag and hort forum tries to get off the farm

  1. Pingback: Ag … - sticK – science, technology, innovation & commercialisation | Today Headlines

  2. All that is said here in this post is true. It is just how do we develop these added value products to the market stage. The ideas are there but it is uniting the good ones with the capital required in today’s marketplace

  3. Jane-Maree Howard says:

    I wish, I wish, I could be less cynical about the chances of development getting off the ground.
    When the UK joined the (then) EEC all those decades ago, the then Prime Minister (Sir) Keith Holyoake (a farmer from Pahiatua!) proposed a conference to discuss adding value to our primary products – nothing came of it; too many vested interests wanted no change. Sir Charles Upham (also a farmer) expressed a similar opinion in saying NZ wool-growers should have taken control of their industry instead of leaving it to “the London-Lancashire mafia”!
    Since then, there have been several reports (e.g. the Porter Report) saying that we cannot expect to continue importing BMWs by exporting lamb carcasses, or words to that effect. Result – nothing. Far too much of the processing we actually do was/is still owned by foreign entities sucking the process dry then dumping the remains (anyone remember the Patea meat works? Owned, via a subsidiary, by the (UK) Vestey Corporation, neglected during the run-up to the UK joining the EEC, & closed in the face of increasing hygiene regulations – 1500-odd jobs gone).
    Since then Fortex (anyone remember them?) came & went (& I’ve never freed myself of the suspicion that they were deliberately sabotaged by the “business-as-usual” brigade). Fonterra, one of the world’s largest dairy companies, could probably use its heft to integrate a farm-gate-to-supermarket-shelf added-value program, but they’re still almost entirely a commodity producer (please tell me I’m wrong!).
    What will it take to change the mindset instilled into us while a mere client economy of the UK, that we should leave any beyond-commodity ambitions to “those who know best”, our former colonial masters & their successors?
    We’ve expanded our range of primary products, & the number of countries we trade with, way beyond the old “client economy” relationship with the UK, so we’re no longer mere colonials who should know our place & defer to our “betters”. Don’t tell me we lack the talent to do more & better, I don’t believe that. But we do seem to lack the political will, & i don’t understand why.

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