NZ Farmer - Farmers told to take heed of negative views about farming

Written by Gerald Piddock

Farmers may be putting themselves and their contribution to New Zealand at risk if they keep ignoring mainstream negativity about farming, says an agribusiness expert.

KPMG global head of agribusiness Ian Proudfoot said the narrative was almost always negative and was "like a newsreel of environmental neglect".

He said farmers had to take the initiative and seize the narrative to ensure the world heard the great stories it had to tell.

For the first time, KPMG held two roundtable conversations with farmers in addition to its annual survey of about 60 business leaders, which  asked them to rank a range of priority items from one to 10. The survey formed the basis of the its Agribusiness Agenda, released at a breakfast function at Mystery Creek on the first morning of Fieldays.

Media were barred from attending this year's function in an attempt to foster an environment where those attending could speak free of scrutiny.

Proudfoot said the decision had come at the request of the business leaders who regularly attended the breakfast.

"In the feedback that we have received, our clients and our guests who run the breakfast want to have an environment where they are comfortable having open conversations about how their businesses are performing and the challenges facing their businesses."

When asked about the irony in the report urging the primary sector to tell their stories better and barring the media from witnessing that discussion, Proudfoot said: "We have, for the last 10 years prepared this report for the use of the industry and we want to ensure the industry can use it as effectively as they can do."

The agenda called on the primary sector to tell honest stories about how products were grown, processed and distributed to the world, to highlight their many positive attributes.

"The message came through clearly during our roundtable conversations that the 2017 General Election highlighted how close the industry has come to losing its social licence to operate," Proudfoot said.

The agricultural sector had faced a barrage of criticism in recent years, much of which was unjustified. This presented an opportunity for the sector to provide its products with a "compelling attribute-based story", Proudfoot said.

In a challenging year for the industry, the mainstream narrative has been mainly negative despite agri-food continuing to dominate export revenues.

"The last year has not played out how industry leaders expected. Whereas the 2017 agenda was outward looking and focused on the opportunities in global markets, this year the agenda is directed towards a range of domestic issues that dominated our conversations with industry leaders".

Maintaining world class biosecurity in New Zealand was again seen as the number one priority for agribusiness leaders. That ranking was no surprise after the discovery of Mycoplasma bovis and myrtle rust over the past year.

"There was a clear message that the speed of response to Mycoplasma bovis has been compromised by farmers not fulfilling their obligations under Nait," Proudfoot said.

"This highlights that managing biosecurity risks must become enshrined as part of the day to day responsibility of everybody that works in the agri-food sector".

The largest pressing priority in the agenda was restoring native ecosystems, rising up eight places to be ranked ninth. Environmental degradation played a central role in last year's election.

"Whether we like it or not, every New Zealander has contributed to the degradation of our environment, waterways and beaches. Addressing these issues needs whole of community responses," he said.

Labour shortages, trade, animal welfare, tracking synthetic and alternative proteins and infrastructure were also ranked highly by the surveyed leaders.