Saturday, April 13, 2024

Tough times will pass for lamb, too

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Former minister Nathan Guy celebrates the export of excellent New Zealand lamb across the world, then and now.
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By Nathan Guy, chair of the Meat Industry Association 

As the former minister for primary industries for five years, it was always a great source of pride to me to see New Zealand farmers and our meat processors partner to export premium lamb to markets across the globe.

It’s been more than 140 years since the Dunedin left Port Chalmers for London with the first shipment of frozen lamb, launching our global food export industry. This was an historic breakthrough moment in NZ’s journey as a global food leader.

That long history has to some extent meant some New Zealanders have taken our talent for producing the world’s best lamb for granted – it’s a Kiwi export delight, right up there with kiwifruit and sauvignon blanc.

That’s why it was great to celebrate National Lamb Day at Parliament, led by Ag Proud and Beef + Lamb NZ, with the backing of our meat companies. The lamb barbecue highlighted that pasture-raised lamb is seriously tasty and good for our health as part of a balanced diet.  

Like any sector, sheep farmers have experienced highs and lows over the years. The reforms of the 1980s saw many farmers walk off the land under a burden of debt. However, the sector emerged from that period with greater resilience and strength.

Since then, there have been significant advances with genetic gains in sheep, new technological tools and the development of new pasture species and cultivars transforming the farming landscape. 

Our farmers and exporters emerged as unlikely heroes during the pandemic and the red meat sector enjoyed record global prices a year or two ago.

Right now, we are in a challenging cycle and it is a tough time for sheep farmers (in fact most farmers), with schedule prices softening on the back of high inflation, soaring costs of living and more competition from other countries. These have led to reduced demand for lamb as consumers shop around for cheaper proteins.

The situation has been compounded by soaring farmgate costs for farmers, with on-farm inflation more than 16% in the year to March 2023.

However, while there are currently significant challenges, there are also opportunities and I encourage farmers to remember these tough times will pass.

The NZ-United Kingdom free trade agreement (FTA) has secured improved access for red meat into one of our most established markets. It may take time to build on the potential, but this is an exciting opportunity.

The NZ-European Union FTA, which comes into effect later this year, will provide further opportunities for the sheep meat sector in this affluent market. 

My visit to China late last year with meat company representatives reminded me of the size and scale of this important market. While China’s economy and demand have slowed, there are some green shoots starting to appear. Strengthening relationships and getting closer to Chinese customers and consumers (as always) are vital to success. 

India also offers great potential, and strengthening ties with this nation is very important. It was great to see Minister of Agriculture and Trade Todd McClay travel to India on his first overseas visit as minister late last year.

I know political relationships are critical but so are business-to-business links. Alliance uses former NZ cricketers to open doors and successfully market its quality lamb into India.

It seems fitting that those who excelled on the green cricket pitches of the world are helping to raise awareness of a product sourced from animals raised roaming freely in the lush green pastures of NZ, to a fellow cricket-loving nation with a potential consumer market of 1.4 billion people. 

Those abundant pastures, allowing us to farm with a low environmental footprint, exceeding global animal welfare standards and producing the highest quality sheep meat, are our great advantage. 

Along with world-leading farming knowledge, we are well positioned to meet the ongoing international demand for protein. 

When you are next having a barbecue with friends and family, remember to celebrate our lamb. We need to be proud and remind Kiwis to keep buying it. That way we will continue to have good reason to celebrate our sheep meat industry for many more years to come.

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