Opinion: Securing New Zealand’s position as a premium food producer

The production of premium foods is an opportunity for New Zealand, Massey academic says. 

By Professor Ray Geor

It’s been called “The Great Food Transformation”, people eating less meat and dairy and more plant-based foods. It may sound like doom and gloom for New Zealand agriculture but it’s not. It provides an excellent opportunity for New Zealand to focus on the production of premium foods that not only deliver quality nutrition but also embody the key attributes that consumers now expect – environmental sustainability, impeccable animal welfare, human health and social wellbeing.

The Wellbeing Budget attracted attention from around the world because New Zealand was being seen to make a difference in our approach. Of course, wellbeing is about much more than the budget. For the agrifood sector, it means taking the opportunity to lead changes for a healthy planet, healthy people and better cared for animals.

Big shifts in patterns of food consumption are evidence of the disruption underway in the food industry. While people in the developing world are eating more protein, those in New Zealand’s traditional markets are eating less meat and dairy and this trend is growing rapidly. The ‘Protein Alternatives Market – Growth Trends and Forecasts (2019-2024)’ says the global protein alternative market valued at $US 8.8 billion in 2018 is expected to register a compound annual growth rate of 7.4 per cent up to 2024.

A key driver of the shift to alternative sources of protein is social responsibility about the impact of intensive animal production on the environment – soil, water, biodiversity and ecosystem health, and air (think greenhouse gas accumulation). There are also concerns for animal welfare and advice, particularly to Western consumers, to reduce (not eliminate) red meat consumption for better health. People are worried too about animal-to-human transmissible diseases.

There is no question that we can’t go on as we have been. We need to do things differently and better. An enduring strength of New Zealand’s agrifood sector is the ability to adapt and adjust to changing demands. We must embrace the opportunity to be seen as the world’s most responsible food producer, living up to our “clean and green” image.  This will require step changes in the way we produce and process food. We need to reduce or stop further damage to the environment and reverse some of the damage we’re already done, to ensure we provide a healthy planet for future generations. 

A multi-pronged and cohesive approach is needed with producers, industry groups, government and the research-education sector truly working together. We must get our young people involved in leading this effort, harnessing their concern for health of the planet and a drive to make a difference.

Surprising as it may seem, around the world New Zealand is considered a sustainable food producer with our pasture-based dairy, sheep and beef systems viewed favourably when compared to the intensive livestock systems prevalent in other countries. That said, there can be no doubt about the negative impact of farming practices on water quality and methane emissions remain the big elephant in the room as New Zealand strives towards Carbon Zero 2050. Our scientists are making advances to protect waterways, improve water quality and the health of river ecosystems. They are also working to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, but greater investment by government and industry is needed to achieve Carbon Zero as we sustain our food production.

Parts of the food industry have been considering consumer health and wellbeing in their product development for some time now, but it’s not enough. The food we eat contributes to poor human health – high sugar, high calorie diets drive obesity in the developed world; in the developing world, production of food from nutrient-depleted soils makes for food insecurity and drives macro and micro-nutrient deficiencies. 

But it’s about more than what is in our food and what it does to us. Consumers want to know foods are responsibly produced. It’s about social responsibility. It’s about genuine progress rather than gross domestic product. It’s about looking after our planet and all that’s in it including our soils, ecosystems, animals and the people.

We can do better, and we can build our reputation as a nation that cares about the health of the planet and all who live on it.

Professor Geor is the College of Sciences Pro-Vice Chancellor.