Saturday, December 2, 2023

‘Food and fibre sector needs to transform before it transacts’  

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Special agricultural trade envoy Mel Poulton reflects on lessons learnt during her tenure.
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Alongside farming sheep and beef in Wairarapa, between 2020 and 2023 Mel Poulton spent time travelling the world representing and advocating for New Zealand’s food and fibre sector as a special agricultural trade envoy. 

Throughout that tenure, having boots on the ground in some of NZ’s largest export markets allowed Poulton to see both its strengths as a food producing nation, and opportunities, especially surrounding intellectual property (IP).

She said what she saw was a great deal of potential to both draw out value from IP and protect it in the long term, especially given the quality of sector research and technologies. 

“There’s an enormous amount of opportunity for us to extract value from our IP in ways that we haven’t really considered before, or broadening it a whole lot more than what we do,” Poulton told Farmers Weekly. 

“I think it’s a relevant concern that New Zealand needs to be really mindful with regard to its strategy and how it navigates its way in the world and how it leverages its IP.  

“It’s about then thinking about that in the context of a growing global population with a real concern around food security and even more importantly, nutrition security.” 

Poulton said there are examples of the country using a copy-and-paste export approach in the past, which often doesn’t work due to the uniqueness of NZ and its agricultural systems. 

“New Zealand is unique in that it is an island nation – a small, tight-knit ecosystem, driven by a temperate maritime climate,” she says. 

“Just copying and pasting that, there’s very few places in the world you can do that in.” 

This transactional, direct approach to trade, although serving the country well in the past, Poulton said, doesn’t account for the growing economic needs of NZ, which will require it to grow further as an export nation. 

The approach that Poulton sees as being the most viable is something she characterises as “transformation before transaction”– the need to adapt and transform sector eco-systems to cater specifically to the needs of the nations NZ is exporting to.

During her time in the role, Poulton saw strong examples of this in countries such as India, where, given some of the challenges it is navigating – food security among them – there are opportunities for countries like NZ. 

“I was just in India just a short while ago, and they really want us to be investing there,” she said.

“They’re grappling with some big challenges, and they’ve got enormous potential to lift by doing small things really well. Talking to the Indian high commissioner to New Zealand, they really do want us to be investing there.

“But again, this is where we’ve got to be thinking about a broader picture than just a single process investment. It’s building all of the ecosystem that is an Indian-centric one, or whatever country it might be in the world, something that really works so that whatever investment we do there, it’s going to be successful.   

“We’ve got to shift our thinking to learning, growing and working together with others to create something entirely new that works in the operating context for them and also works for us. 

“It’s government to government, industry to industry, farmer to farmer, company to company, people to people.”

Poulton is confident that NZ sector ecosystems, from the food producers and service sector to researchers and diplomatic teams, are world class.

“All these people are technically competent, highly skilled, and very effective at their job,” she said.

“You’ve got all the processors, exporters, packers, who are all exceptionally good at what they do for our sector.

“There are amazing people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Ministry for Primary Industries and different government ministries who are working hard for the success of our sector offshore when they’re engaging on the certification and standards and all sorts of things.

“Then there’s the food producers themselves, who are innovative, creative, solutions-focused businesspeople who are juggling so many variables and navigating their businesses without subsidies, to generate revenue for NZ. It’s just an exceptional ecosystem that works together.

“Underpinning the whole lot is the science, academia and research that goes on, that’s delivered the knowledge over the years. We’ve got to keep investing in that science, research, and development because they all underpin our success.”

Although it is important to be outward-looking, seeking opportunities for growth, Poulton said that given some of the events happening domestically, many food producers are under the pump and it’s difficult to focus on anything but the present. 

“I suppose when we’re talking about a big picture strategy for New Zealand, we really need to be thinking about how we strategically position ourselves on the global stage in the long term in such a way that we try to deliver short-, medium- and long-term returns to New Zealand. 

“But we’ve also got to acknowledge the fact that right now, there are many farmers, food producers, packers, exporters that are really under the pump big time right now, especially those that have been hit by the weather in places like the East Coast.

“We’ve got to be mindful that people are under enormous environmental, social, and economic pressure right now.” 

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