Saturday, December 2, 2023

Farmers still have a good future

Avatar photo
AgResearch is in a good place to help farmers face some of the challenges in front of them, its outgoing chief executive Dr Tom Richardson says.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Richardson, who is stepping down later this month, has been involved with Crown research institutes from the day they were created and has seen a lot of changes in the corporate Crown entities since.

He has been at the helm of AgResearch for nine rewarding years after 17 years at forest research institute Scion, including five as chief executive.

When Richardson came to New Zealand from the United States in 1990 he planned to stay for two years.

He has since made what AgResearch chairman Dr Paul Reynolds describes as a huge contribution to AgResearch and the science sector.

“He has led the organisation through some challenging times and positioned it to make a strong and enduring contribution to the future of the NZ pastoral sector,” Reynolds said.

Richardson said CRIs, with their commercial model, are unlike anything else in the world.

In the early 1990s, as they sought to find their place, much of their focus was on what was hot at the time, such as forestry or kiwifruit but following a review in 2010 they all operate under strategic statements of intent that specify their core business though there is also large amount of collaboration.

The focus of AgResearch’s work has changed in response to stakeholder and customer demand.

Richardson said research today is focused more on outcomes and what can be achieved through changes to farm systems rather than trying to ratchet up percentage improvements from individual farm components.

An important part of that work is how to better produce agri-foods that meet global customers’ expectations. 

That means not only understanding areas like food safety and nutrition but also the growing focus on environmental sustainability, labour practices and animal welfare.

There is a growing trend towards transparency of food production, which customers are increasingly demanding thanks to improvements in technology.

So data to back up that transparency will become essential to maintaining market access.

“Institutional trust is trending downwards and total transparency is coming, thanks to things like webcams in barns. 

“Customers want proof of environmental credentials and technology is making it realistic for them to expect that in real time.”

In the past NZ has done well from its clean, green story but farmers as food producers have to nail the opportunity that has provided because they can expect others to measure up.

“The flip side of that is if that’s not there, customers take a long time to come back.”

Global food outlets now have social contracts with their customers, something that in NZ we have been a bit slow to understand.

Farmers and the wider agricultural sector should be more focused on having the right credentials to maintain market access than worrying about the growth of future foods.

Though the emergence of synthetic foods cannot be ignored, the claims of an impending collapse of NZ’s traditional food exports in the face of an alternative protein revolution are overstated.

There is no question the technology to produce synthetic foods is developing rapidly, leading to improvements in the quality of products while making them more cost-effective to produce but NZ agri-food producers need not feel threatened by that.

Most NZ food exports target niche markets and if we get that right there will be a place for sustainably produced, safe, whole foods.

The number and size of those markets will continue to grow, providing good opportunities for NZ food exporters in the future.

Much of the added value that can be achieved by NZ food exports will be created by production systems and the certification, banding and provenance storytelling that is built around those systems.

He said as those changes occur AgResearch is well equipped to support the agri-food sector to make those shifts.

AgResearch finance and business performance director Tony Hickmott will be acting chief executive while the board finds a replacement.

“My decision to step away was made slightly easier by the calibre of the AgResearch executive team now in place and the momentum the organisation has achieved,” Richardson said.

He has no immediate plans for the future and won’t be jumping into another job straight away, instead spending more time with family and exploring the South Island, where he now lives.

People are also reading