Barber’s Wire: Irish DAFM approach may be better than New Zealand’s

Allan Barber

The Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s (DAFM) 10 year strategy report named Foodwise 2025 contains a lot of the same features as the Ministry for Primary Industries’ ambition to double agricultural exports over a similar timeframe, wrote Allan Barber ahead of the British Brexit vote.

As an agricultural producer, Ireland also has many of the same characteristics as New Zealand: a rural economy based heavily on grass-fed production and produce from the sea, a small domestic market and heavy reliance on exports, an expanding dairy herd and an ageing farmer profile. The agri-food industry contributes a greater proportion of export revenue than non agri-food production which is equally true of New Zealand.

Obviously there are differences, notably the impact of the EU common agricultural policy on Irish farm incomes, the destination of exports, the lower efficiency and smaller scale of farms, and the variation of production volumes.

The DAFM SWOT analysis shows comparable strengths in Ireland’s sustainable grass-based production systems and animal health status, and opportunities from the global demand for nutritious food and protein, its clean green reputation and the potential for foreign direct investment. Perceived weaknesses and threats include price and exchange rate volatility, lack of private investment in R&D, scarcity of skilled people and access to finance.

In many ways a SWOT analysis of New Zealand agricultural prospects would look quite similar. One particular threat that was on neither country’s radar until recently, and therefore not mentioned in any of the planning documents, is Brexit which, as I write, will be voted on overnight and the outcome known tomorrow.

Even after the vote, I suspect the full impact will remain unclear for some time, particularly if the ‘Leavers’ win the day. However Ireland’s biggest markets for sheepmeat by far are the UK and broader EU, whereas New Zealand has the growing advantage of the counterbalancing Chinese market. Neither country actually knows what effect a vote to leave the EU will have on exports to the UK.

To me one of the most interesting aspects of the Foodwise 2025 report, presented to the Irish Minister of Agriculture in July 2015, is the size and composition of the 2025 Agri-Food Strategy Committee which consisted of 36 members from agricultural organisations, the farming sector, business schools and the private sector. The secretariat was provided by DAFM as the lead agency, but the sheer weight of commercial and intellectual grunt was impressive.

It is worth asking the question whether New Zealand’s cause might be better served by combining resources in this way, instead of each organisation coming up with its own separate ideas on the best strategic direction. MPI is the lead government agency for the agricultural sector, but it is not clear to me that it necessarily succeeds in capturing the thoughts of each sector through the individual industry organisations representing producers, processors and exporters.

MPI’s strategic objectives contain good ideas such as for example ‘primary sector businesses use attributes of the New Zealand story to enhance their own story’, but the lack of a coherent brand strategy suggests this may be more wishful thinking than reality. I suspect MPI’s plan is viewed by the rest of the industry as a document aimed at satisfying the requirements of government ministers looking for sound bytes. It is not a plan which everybody has bought into, because the rest of the industry had no part in its preparation.

How much better to have convened a group of people from across the sector, including farming leaders, marketing people, retailers, exporters, and scientists, to formulate a strategic plan for the New Zealand agricultural brand.

So my challenge to the agricultural sector is not to let MPI speak for the sector or be captured by the government’s desire for good news, but to decide what agriculture actually needs to succeed and grow and how best to implement the strategy.

Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. He can be contacted at allan@barberstrategic.co.nz.

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