Professor Claire Massey.

A recipe for agrifood success

When you’re a long way from your key customers, good market intelligence is a gift from the gods. We can have all the good ideas we like, but if we don’t have the data to back it up, dreams often remain that – and the targets that sounded so good when they were launched are hastily revised in the light of reality.

So this week’s release of the most recent report from the Food and Beverage Information Project is another gem. “What does Asia want for dinner?” offers hard data and the sort of high-quality analysis that can help those in the business of exporting food make their dreams a reality.

The authors make their position clear – East and South East Asia present significant opportunities for New Zealand exporters willing to invest in the sort of products that are in demand. They suggest it’s a matter of clear thinking about the opportunities and collective action to address them.

Those who have a role include entrepreneurs, industry bodies and the research community – all supported by a government that sees its role as clearing the way – and which delivers on this mandate. This is what industry leadership is all about. But these leaders need to take the rest of us along with them. If we can get the whole country involved in an open dialogue about what this might deliver to us all, we stand a better chance of getting to the goal.  

The price of milk at the international milk auctions has been dominating the business news recently – and the discussion raised an increasing unease at the way New Zealand’s GDP depends on the strength of this one industry. There is nothing wrong with having this discussion out in the open – especially if it makes people think about ways of diversifying the export portfolio by developing new crops, new products and new processes. It is not what we do ‘instead of’ dairying – the question is what we do in addition to it.

We have traditionally focused on a small number of industries (dairy, meat, wool) or sectors (pipfruit, seafood) but, to gain most value, we need to build strength in new areas – value-added beverages being one of the suggestions. We also need to develop more depth and sophistication in all components of the whole value chain – traceability, resource management, processing, packaging, distribution, retailing, marketing, branding, exporting, policy, finance, technology, computing, management, research and development. 

As any food producer knows, getting food to market takes a lot more skill than processing alone.  

We must also look for smart business models. One of our core national values is independence, but the demands of the future will require us to partner with those who have skills or resources we lack in a process of open innovation. 

As we grapple with the ongoing issue of inwards investment (with the controversy around the proposed sale of Lochinvar station being a prime example) we need to think about what resources we need – and how best to tap into that much-needed expertise as well as additional investment.

The problems facing the world today (food supply, poverty, disease, climate change) are complex. They require integrated responses, and we need to harness all the resources (including tikanga Māori) available to us. Industry leaders, government and the country’s science providers need to get together to fill in the gaps of this blueprint for the future. 

We already have excellent science and education systems where individuals and groups are closely connected, but we can do better. Our goal must be to provide easy access for firms, with scientists working across institutional boundaries (in New Zealand and around the world) and alongside industry as standard practice. 

We need to make this ‘best practice’ the new norm. We need to ensure that our farmers and producers continue to be world leaders, and we need to make this the case for our manufacturers and service providers alike. We can turn New Zealand into the smart food capital of the world – it’s just a matter of getting all the right ingredients lined up.

Professor Claire Massey is Massey University’s Director of Agrifood Business. 

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