How morale among our food producers is flagging in the face of Covid fatigue and Ardern’s regulatory agenda

KPMG’s global head of agribusiness, Ian Proudfoot​,  reports morale in  NZ’s farming  industries has slumped over the past year, with industry leaders struggling under the pressure.

“We could sense anger during our conversations, particularly in relation to the labour shortages the sector faces”.

Proudfoot is the  author of  the  KPMG “Agribusiness Agenda” , delivered at a   breakfast session at the opening  day  of  the  Fieldays,   billed  as the  largest agricultural event  in  the  southern  hemisphere.

He  believes  NZ’s role in a global “food renaissance” could be hampered by Covid-19 fatigue and sweeping regulatory changes.

That  presents   a  huge  challenge  for  any  government – particularly  one  that  has  been   perceived to be no  friend  to farmers. Yet Prime  Minister  Jacinda  Ardern put  on a  bold  front  when she  and  several  of  her  ministers appeared  at  Mystery  Creek.

Only  a cynic  would  suspect  she sees  an  opportunity  to  sustain  the strength  of  Labour’s  resurgent  vote  among  rural  communities  at  the  last election.

The  government, she  says, is

 “ … really grateful for the role the primary sector has played in NZ’s COVID recovery, and is continuing to play as we look to further strengthen and accelerate that recovery.  I want to acknowledge the efforts of our primary industries in keeping New Zealand’s export revenues flowing in. Their hard work has helped us all hugely in hard times.

“We’ve had a strong performance in the headwinds of the past 12 months and the outlook is positive, but we recognise that significant challenges lie ahead.

“The government has always said we’ll work in partnership with farmers. That’s what we’ve been doing to date, and it’s what we’ll continue to do.”

How  far  that  will strike a  chord across  the wider  farming community  is  uncertain. As Proudfoot  discovered  in  his conversations  with farming  leaders, it  seemed  he

“ … had been talking to people  who were primarily  focussed on   finding  the  strength  to  fight  another  day,  rather than the  energised  leaders  of  previous  years”.

He  noted  the  pace  of  regulatory  change has  been greater  than in recent  years.

“Each new rule brings  new  compliance  and reporting requirements and often  requires  changes to core systems… in addition,  the  Climate Change Commission’s final advice  on  farming has also presented  pressure  on the  sector to do its  part, or even do the  heavy lifting for  NZ”.

Whether  ministers   empathise  with   this  is  far from  clear.  The  demands  made  on farmers   by  the  Ardern  government are severe, not  just  on  climate  change,   but   through  its  waters  reforms,  and also  its penalties through  the feebate scheme  for motor vehicles.

Meanwhile  Ardern   sails  blithely  on.  Announcements  being   made  by  her  ministers at  the  Fieldays  event include co-funding for a new project aimed at helping farmers improve freshwater quality, an update on “our great work together”  as part of the Fit for a Better World Roadmap, a rural connectivity milestone, and the release of the Situation Outlook for Primary Industries, which she expects will show the sector is in a strong position to drive prosperity for all Kiwis over the next few years.

Ardern  listed  as  examples  of  work  the  government  had  done with  the sector:

  • Co-investing in innovative projects through the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund (MPI is providing $111m of a total $250m invested)
  • He Waka Eke Noa to support farmers and growers manage on-farm emissions
  • Funding catchment groups to improve on-farm practices
  • Supporting Rural Support Trusts and community hubs to help rural communities
  • Developing an integrated farm planning framework with the sector, supported by $37 million in Budget 2021
  • Agricultural greenhouse gas mitigation research and development, supported by $24 million in Budget 2021
  • Pursuing free trade agreements with the United Kingdom and Europe, and signing our FTA upgrade with China
  • Backing sector training programmes, such as GoDairy, and attracting more than 5200 Kiwis to sector jobs through initiatives like the Opportunity Grows Here campaign
  • The mycoplasma bovis eradication programme
  • Providing spaces for RSE, dairy workers and vets to enter NZ while border restrictions are in place for COVID-19
  • Significant investments in rural schools and health.

It remains to be seen whether  this  will  soothe  an  industry  which – as  Proudfoot  pointed  out – is  working  under  extreme pressure.

Given  there  is a  global  food  renaissance  happening  right   now,  the  government  should be  placing a priority  on expanding farm investment and  production,  rather  than  culling  cattle numbers.  It needs  to  ensure   there  is  a  plentiful  supply of  labour    to fulfil  rural  needs.

And  it   should  be  taking aboard  the  simple  request, in Proudfoot’s survey from  agribusiness leaders:

“Please  ensure  that  work is co-ordinated across agencies  so that  consultation  occurs  and  regulations  are  drafted in a  way that reduces  the  burden on  executive time”.

Still,  those  attending  Fieldays  may  welcome   the  presence   of   ministers,  some  of  whom they  may  have  never seen  before,  and  any  further  announcements  they  might  have.

PM  Ardern,  along  with  her  backroom  strategists, will  have  their  sights set on  longer- term  objectives  as  they  seek to  cultivate  the  rural communities. They  may have  convinced  themselves  that  as they get  to  grips  with  climate  change,  they  are  pulling  away the Green Party’s main  platform—and  if the Green  Party’s  vote   falls  away,  so  does the  support  Labour  will  need  in the  MMP  environment  to continue  governing.

Point  of  Order  suspects  the  farmers   themselves   will  not  be   persuaded  that a  Labour  government  has  turned  over a  new leaf, and  now  identifies itself as a  party   which  can draw  in  other  rural  votes.

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