Opinion: Food is our past, present and future economy

It has been gratifying to see New Zealanders giving a heartfelt shout out to our farmers, growers, fishers and food processors as valued Covid-19 frontline heroes.  It reminds us of the vital part the food and beverage (F&B) sector plays and will continue to play in NZ’s life and economy.

I pay tribute also to the hundreds of scientists and technologists supporting our producers. Scientists are by and large modest individuals, who do not boast of their achievements.  Covid-19 has placed many scientists in the public eye and demonstrated their calibre, integrity, and the critical dependence of government on their objective advice.

In just one year, F&B earned NZ almost as much as the breathtaking sum the government has committed to supporting us through the Covid-19 crisis.  A report on the sector (MBIE’s Coriolis report) assesses the potential for growing F&B export earnings by 50% in the next 5 years, from $40 billion to $60 billion per year.  Pre Covid-19, nearly 50% of our export earnings were from the F&B sector, which accounted for over 10% of NZ employment.  Our F&B export value is growing strongly and improving relative to that of other exporting countries.

Growth will not be about volume, but innovation and premium pricing.  Increased investment, post Covid-19, in food product development and onshore processing, is a sure-fire way to create new jobs for New Zealanders at all levels.

This growth must happen in line with the government’s carbon emission reduction and freshwater quality targets.  More than that, it must actually enhance our environment and reduce waste, which currently amounts to nearly one third of the food we produce.  These challenges, as well as pressures on land use, biosecurity, and consumer insistence on product traceability, sustainability, animal welfare, fair working conditions, food safety and optimum nutrition, require an absolute powerhouse of science and innovation behind our farmers and producers.

Although there will be even more demand for our high quality, and relatively low carbon emission, beef, lamb and dairy, we have to gear up for the consumer drive to more plant-based diets and keep ahead of all the developments in alternative proteins.  These alternatives are science and technology-intensive.

Many well-motivated New Zealanders, with understandable concerns about climate change, think that we should convert from pastoral farming to growing crops.  As Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh, director of the Riddet Institute, pointed out in a North & South feature (November 2019), such a conversion by New Zealand would not reduce the impacts of global climate change, but simply shift production to higher carbon emitting producers in other countries.  In any case, three-fifths of our productive land is completely unsuitable for crops.  Grass-fed beef and sheep farming are the best land use.

The nutritional value-for-money of our red meat and dairy is hard to beat.  While sticking to their knitting, agri-food producers, with help from the scientists, are also enthusiastically and intelligently diversifying what they grow (hemp, quinoa, new vegetable and fruit varieties), embedding considerable value in the range of foods we now produce and export.  Look at the success of A2 milk, First Light’s grass-fed wagyu beef and Zespri’s Sungold kiwifruit.

Horticulture is growing faster than other sectors. Fruit exports have doubled since 2008.  It was a great relief that we managed to get most of the high-earning kiwifruit and apple crops in during lockdown.  Strong new export lines are olives, berries, avocados, wine, honey and seafood.  We have every reason to be proud of our wonderful wines and super-nutritious, safe and well-regulated natural foods. Don’t underestimate the amount of research that goes into delivering “natural” foods.

Our economic die was cast when these islands split from the Gondwana continent and drifted into a (now) benign temperate zone a long way from the rest of the world.  We are long and narrow, with an enormous coastline, so we don’t get too hot or cold, and have access to ocean resources.  A veritable ‘Goldilocks Zone’. The MBIE Coriolis report says, rather poetically, we have, “The light of Spain with the climate of Bordeaux” and a location that will buffer the effects of climate change.

We can feed ourselves many times over. New Zealand produces and exports high quality protein and protein rich foods to the world, but on a global scale our contribution is relatively small. We have a responsibility to share the bounty of beautiful food and beverage we produce with all New Zealanders, as well as consumers of our exports.

Let’s now get behind the F&B sector and start earning our way out of this crisis. Food is our past, present and future economy.

By Kevin Marshall, Chair of the Riddet Institute Board,  a company director and consultant in food technology research and development. 

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