Around 40 days out from the opening of polling booths for the 23 September election, four politicians took up invitations to join a panel, compèred by Meat Industry Association (MIA) chairman John Loughlin last Sunday night at the opening event on the Red Meat Sector Conference (RMSC) programme. This was the Hamburg-Sud Welcome Cocktail Function, held at Silver Fern Farms’ corporate head office in Dunedin.
In his introduction, Loughlin outlined the red meat sector’s successes – including access for chilled meat and bovine blood products to China, the opening of the Iranian market – and the challenges ahead in the various current trade negotiations that are underway. These include free trade agreements (FTAs) with the 11 remaining Trans-Pacific Partnership countries, the Pacific Alliance, the EU and UK.
“This year is one of promise,” he said, adding the over-arching theme in the sector’s manifesto, recently put together by MIA and Beef + Lamb NZ Ltd, was partnership. He referred to positive movements that have been made towards getting red meat industry signature on a Government Industry Agreement.
The $8 billion dollar sector, employs 80,000 people, he noted. “We’re a big part of the economy, if big parties are wanting to engage they need to engage with us,” he said.
Richard Prosser (NZ First), Ian McKelvie (National), Eugenie Sage (Green Party) and Damien O’Connor (Labour) took their turns on the Sunday evening to present their party’s vision, followed by a question and answer session.
Noting his party was “on the same page” as the farming sector, NZ First’s Richard Prosser talked about the need for increasing returns and for “value not volume” and referred to single-desk selling of meat, though he did acknowledge the latter would need to be done by consensus.
The Labour Party is the ‘disruptor’ according to O’Connor, referring to the mid-1980s removal of subsidies and the formation of Fonterra. His vision is for the meat industry to “produce the finest protein for the world’s most discerning customers.” He questioned whether the sector is selling an experience. “Red meat is not just red meat, it’s beef, sheepmeat and venison. We need to grow the opportunities and diversify, if we do that the opportunities are huge,” he said.
Possibly the best prepared on the panel was the Green Party’s Eugenie Sage who said the party has “no doubt farmers are responding” to the challenges ahead. Referring to the sector’s manifesto, she said her party strongly supports the sector’s call for eliminating the grand-parenting approach to allocating nitrogen discharges, for natural capital accounting and catchment management through an independent body like the Landcare Trust. The Greens plan to put a charge on water and also bring agriculture into the ETS, while relaxing rules around carbon farms, she said.
“That’s why we’re putting so much energy into Grow NZ”, she said.
She pointed to how the red meat sector has increased returns on fewer sheep and reduced emissions per animal by 19 percent over the past two decades and said the Greens also support “fewer hooves on farm.”
National plans to continue its programme of support for the sector by continuing its efforts to create better trade access, put in place “good animal welfare regulations”, create a great biosecurity scheme and produce a scientific outcome for ETS, promised National MP for Rangitikei, Ian McKelvie, who is also chair of the Primary Production Select Committee and a largely retired farmer.
Panellists were further quizzed on their attitudes to trade liberalisation, subsidies, sustainability and what that means, the ETS and “how farmers will be rewarded for doing the right thing.” Discussion also touched on the rural-urban divide in understanding and water. It is evident from panel responses that transparency will play a big part in gaining public support for trade deals for the country, there was majority support for continuing New Zealand’s unsubsidised agriculture, but there were differing approaches and thoughts as to how ETS might play out.
In his summation of the panel session, B+LNZ chairman James Parsons countered the myth that the meat industry doesn’t work together.
“The sector does work together very well and we are tackling the future together,” he assured the panel, adding there is a need for the incoming government – “the parent” – to consider how to strike the right regulatory balance between too strict “which reduces innovation” and too relaxed “which leads to anarchy.”
“It’s not how we can be the best country in the world but how we can be the best country for the world,” he concluded.
Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy had the final political word at the Maersk Gala Dinner the following day, when he said he thought the red meat sector was in very good heart and he was in no doubt it was going to grow. He referred to Government support for the sector – including investment in Primary Growth Partnerships and $35 million more for the Ministry for Primary Industries to support the export trade through the Economic Intelligence Unit, new regulatory advisory services, vigilance against non-tariff barriers and a market access “flying squad” which is seeing teams being strategically bolstered in existing and emerging markets.
He also thanked the sector for “all you’ve done regarding bobby calves.”
Guy also noted the need for it, “to be loud, proud and out there,” on its successes and opportunities.