The Pathways to Long-Term Sustainability document launched earlier this month makes some very valid points about the red meat industry’s shortcomings, but its recommendations are almost certainly impossible to implement, writes meat industry commentator Allan Barber.
Even if the processors are willing to consider capacity rationalisation, it won’t be on the scale envisaged by the GHD consultants and judging by Sir Graeme Harrison’s remarks ANZCO won’t be part of it; nor will AFFCO unless the Talleys undergo a St Paul like conversion on the road to Motueka. This leaves the cooperatives, with Silver Fern Farms’ Rob Hewett prepared to consider merging with Alliance, although he isn’t holding his breath, while Murray Taggart remains very lukewarm.
The common theme evident from all the company chairmen is the fundamental need for any solution to be commercially justifiable from the companies’ perspective. The problem with this particular stance is the conflict with the farmer bias of MIE’s proposals.
At issue is the lack of sheep and beef farmer profitability for which the meat processors and exporters alone are held responsible. They are guilty as proved by the MIE document of having too much capacity which dictates their procurement tactics, while simultaneously competing away value in the export market. Unfortunately, this verdict is too simplistic.
It ignores the potential for farmers to increase their on farm earnings by quite simply doing things better. In 2011 the Red Meat Sector Strategy calculated a $180 million gain if those farmers with profitability between the 50th and 70th percentile were to lift their performance to the 80th percentile. This is substantially greater than either the gains from procurement or the market value chain identified in the MIE document.
The RMSS figure doesn’t even include potential gains from improving on farm practice of the lowest performing 50 percent of farmers. However, a lift in performance from the 40th to 50th percentile would produce a 72 percent gain in profitability by the farmers in question. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix.
Silver Fern Farms’ Hewett argues with GHD’s findings which estimate 53 percent ovine processing overcapacity, saying 20-30 percent is more realistic and pointing out the difference between North and South Island livestock flows every season, particularly in a drought. While nobody is disputing the need for some capacity reduction, it will have to be achieved by voluntary closures which take into consideration the interests of shareholders including farmers, bankers and the workforce.
As recognised by both the RMSS and MIE’s plan, there are two critical components of sector profitability improvement other than best practice throughout the supply chain: aligned procurement or contracted supply commitment and coordinated in-market behaviour. Contracted supply to an agreed minimum level would underpin processors’ plant utilisation and enable them to commit to marketing programmes with certainty. Coordinated in-market behaviour, preferably under Brand New Zealand in selected markets, would begin the process of building trust and cooperation between exporters.
There are three problems for all New Zealand agricultural exporters which are not readily addressed by any short-term strategy – the unavoidably small size of the domestic market, overseas trade barriers and the strength of our dollar. Price volatility and the exchange rate are directly affected by demand in global markets and the relative economic strength of our trading partners, while trade agreements like South Korea take a lot of time. It is simplistic to blame our meat companies for failing to cope with these headwinds.
However, one question which needs answering is the claim of underselling in comparison with producers from other countries. This accusation is normally levelled against lamb exporters who sell to UK supermarkets at a price often believed to be far lower than those earned by Welsh or English farmers. This may be the fault of the supermarket chains that use New Zealand lamb as a loss leader, not the exporter, but it serves as ammunition for farmers who are convinced they are being cheated of the true value of their product.
It is very difficult to obtain firm information which will prove or disprove the claim and it would be impossible to gather price information across all cuts, customers and markets. But as long as New Zealand exporters compete using different brands for key products in the main markets, it will be hard to convince a critical audience how this can possibly be better than collaborating under a single New Zealand brand, at least for certain value added products in key markets, like New Zealand lamb in the UK and EU.
While the recommendations in the MIE plan have logic, they are limited in their scope. There are five capacity-related recommendations calling for collaboration between companies to find ‘an industry-wide solution that provides long-term and enduring viability’, such as chain licensing and company participation in a rationalisation scheme which would hold redundant assets; there is a recommendation which calls for Government support to introduce enabling legislation and a fifth proposal for reserve capacity to be available in times of need.
The final three recommendations, which could more accurately be described as pleas, call for contracted supply of livestock, farmer support for capital raising to fund a consolidated industry and the transition from a production led to a customer focused value added model.
As anticipated MIE’s plan is heavy on production cost and efficiency analysis and contains a wish list of what is desirable, but light on strategy for achieving it. MIE deserves credit for starting the discussion about the future of the red meat sector. However, the real commitment has to come from both farmers and meat companies to embrace sector best practice in all aspects of their business.
Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. This item has appeared at NZ Farmers Weekly. Allan has his own blog, Barber’s Meaty Issues, and can be contacted by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.