What’s to celebrate in the wake of the crushing blow to the economy delivered by the Covid-19 pandemic?
Certainly it’s a relief NZ has emerged less scarred than other countries. Whether the country absorbed more economic pain than was necessary will be debated fiercely.
As ministers begin the search to fill the economic hole left by the collapse of the tourist industry and by permanent damage – perhaps – to sectors like international education, PM Jacinda Ardern says she wants “specific” and “ specially designed” initiatives for different industries.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson, in talking of the government’s “strong recovery plan”, says all ministers have been tasked with reaching out to their sector to help develop this plan. Deputy PM Winston Peters believes the fragility of the highly interconnected global economy has been exposed, and NZ must become more self-reliant.
Political commentator Matthew Hooton says these three career politicians have
“ … absolutely no idea of what sectors of the economy are doomed, which have a future, and whether any commercial proposal makes sense. Add Economic Development Phil Twyford to the mix and it risks the appearance of a circus run by clowns”.
Already a gap appears to be opening up between the Finance Minister, who says NZ must continue to trade, and the Deputy PM, who thinks NZ should become more self-reliant.
As this debate intensifies, the risk is there isn’t sharp enough focus on what NZ does best, or the kind of thinking in Wellington to clear the way for a fresh drive to expand the exports of primary industries, and as well increase productivity.
Is there a minister who is seeking to secure the advances of gene editing in the development of new crops or the breeding of animals?
And what about major new irrigation schemes? Regional Development Minister Shane Jones has reassigned some PGF funding for new irrigation projects, but nothing on the scale of what the country needs.
A huge expansion in horticulture, especially through hydroponics, should be a high priority. The hydroponic option could be either “vertical farming” being pioneered in California or Scotland, or an expansion of greenhouse use to grow fresh produce, (and possibly both).
Engineered plant-based protein is already being consumed in the US by fast-food operators in their meatless burgers.
In Europe sensors and machine learning have been introduced to farming industries.
Latest trade figures underline just how vital primary producers are in the NZ export-based economy. The country posted its biggest monthly trade surplus in the last 12 months—$672m in March— as exports held up in the face of the spreading Covid-19 pandemic.
Higher exports of kiwifruit, dairy and meat more than offset a drop in forestry product exports. Fruit exports rose $145m, a startling 54%, milk powder, butter and cheese $106m or 7.6%, and meat $102m or 11%.
Exports to China and Australia were down, but were higher to the US, the EU and Japan.
Another interesting statistic came out this week, with the yield for the 2020 harvest up 16% across the board when compared with 2019.
Particularly encouraging was the fact that fewer hectares were planted in total this season compared with last (98,090 ha against 104,000), yet substantially greater tonnes were harvested (873,080 against 796,700),
For livestock farmers, with a feed shortage issues because of the double hit of drought and Covid-19-related meat plant processing delays, the greater availability of feed wheat/barley will be a relief.
In the post- Covid-19 environment farmers will be looking for the kind of business and other developments which could accelerate substantial production increases from their land and animals.
They shouldn’t have to be worrying about methane emissions or new freshwater regulations: rather, the government should be rushing to relegate these issues, particularly as the Green Party’s agenda has become largely irrelevant in the immediate post-Covid-19 economy.