I spent a fascinating day and a half earlier this week at this year’s Red Meat Sector Conference – RMSC 2019 – in Christchurch. Excellent speakers outlined the challenges ahead for the sector in a well-attended and packed-out event, jointly organised by the Meat Industry Association (MIA) and Beef + Lamb NZ (B+LNZ).
A highlight was Professor Frédéric Leroy’s excellent and thought-provoking presentation presenting his case that meat is being scapegoated by those with profit, growth or ideological reasons in mind. The global meat sector needs to counter this misinformation with solid scientific fact and reasoning and to encourage others to start dealing with the actual priorities, shifting the dialogue to areas where differences can be made, he said.
“Fossil fuels are the elephant in the room,” he said.
He had lots of excellent facts on hand, which I’m sure will come in handy for the sector. The most compelling for me, personally, were that if you go vegan, you drop your individual emissions contribution by six percent, if you go vegetarian by four percent, while flexitarians drop theirs by a mere two percent. So, you will have much more individual impact on the environment by doing things like changing your petrol-driven car for an electric or hybrid model, insulating your house or avoiding air-travel (or, maybe, off-setting it?). Companies in New Zealand can shift process heat from fossil fuels to electric and advice on that has been issued this week. Our own government needs to more urgently provide the infrastructure and assistance to help Kiwis to make those changes in technology .
Also interesting to note was a shift in terminology, from both speakers and delegates, away from ‘alternative proteins’ to ‘ultra-processed fake meat’. Four US states have now banned the labelling of fake meat as ‘meat’ and 10 states have now limited what can be labelled as meat and there are now calls to take it to federal level to narrow its standard of identity for meat said US government affairs specialist Jim Richards. France has also banned the use of meat-like words, such as burger, sausage or bacon, to describe these alternative proteins on packaging.
It was also clear we’re, today, in the era of sci-fact as opposed to sci-fi – not only ultra-processed products but also technology-powered retail. Alibaba’s Pier Smulders gave a fascinating glimpse into ‘new retail’ in China, superstores merging online and offline retailing into one consumer experience powered by smartphones. Exporters need to use branding in that market to get a direct B2C connection with their Chinese consumers, he suggests. A start would be promoting to the free and independent Chinese travellers when they’re here in New Zealand, the majority from our target demographic, the affluent middle class.
China remains our top market for all red meat products, but as the Minister of Agriculture, Damien O’Connor, warned during his speech following the Maersk Gala Dinner, it will be important not to be too reliant on one market, and more traditional markets for New Zealand will need to be nurtured. However, it wasn’t so long ago that the same thing was being said of the UK and New Zealand’s red meat products are now sold into over 110 markets around the globe.
Bringing it all together, a panel discussion facilitated by NZ Herald business editor Fran O’Sullivan brought MIA chair John Loughlin, B+LNZ chair Andrew Morrison and AWDT chair Lindy Nelson together to consider the day’s presentations and for all to consider questions from the floor.
Discussion at RMSC 2019 roved around the big picture for the sector over the coming year, involving real leadership that instils confidence and collaboration, a loud consistent voice in countering the anti-meat messages, science informing the vision for the sector and meeting the zero carbon challenge, managing the challenges around market volatility by being agile and responsive and education and training.
All would prefer to see our own government being an enabler for the sector, rather than regulator.
“It’s not about saying no to government, it’s about coming up with better options,” said B+LNZ Ltd chair Andrew Morrison.
The coming year will see more collaboration between MIA and B+LNZ Ltd, and continuing with counterparts overseas on global issues, like climate change, science and education.
Listening to comments around the networking events and questions from the floor, it’s also clear to me how important it will be for the sector to be able to use every new technology available, including gene-editing and CRISPR technologies to speed up the selection of low-methane forage crops and animals, in the strive to achieve expectations for reduction of methane emissions from livestock. But, it will have to be carefully (and transparently) judged against the sector’s chosen re-positioning towards the natural New Zealand meat, that is desired by consumers around the world. One overseas speaker was open to the idea: “If it reinforces the message that ‘we’re already doing it well and we want to do it better’,” he said.
Plenty to think about then. The conversation needs to get going ….