By Mike Cranstone, President Federated Farmers Whanganui
New Zealanders have historically had a reliable supply of a diverse range of nutritious and affordable foods. Our country has a temperate climate, fertile land and our farmers and growers are among the best in the world. They have to be, because they sell in a competitive open market where consumers have always had the choice of many alternatives. Success has been achieved with producers, marketers and regulators working together to achieve top quality products produced with very high standards.
Recently there have been more examples of regulations being made without the consultation of the wider industry. Often these have been driven by a response to a vocal minority with an alarmist or disruptive agenda. Too often it is individuals in power claiming that this is what all consumers want.
The national egg shortage is a dire example of the failure of this country’s current regulatory approach to change.
In 2012 the egg industry accepted the challenge to phase out battery cages. Officials and producers worked together to design three government approved alternatives: colony cages, barn and free range. These all require significant capital investment, and free range also needs significantly more land. With clear timelines the industry got into transition mode and by 2016 a third of laying hens were in colony cages, where chooks have room for perching, nesting and scratching.
Animal welfare groups didn’t approve of colony cages, despite them being a major method in Europe, where battery cages had already been banned. In the 2017 election campaign, Labour and Greens intended to ban not only battery but also colony cages. This never eventuated but supermarkets latched onto this smouldering issue and said they would stop selling colony cage eggs from 2025.
In 2017, midway through the transition timeline, the confidence of egg producers to invest in new production methods was shattered. All the hard work by industry and officials to agree on the alternatives that were science-based, achievable and affordable was scuttled by the supermarkets reacting to alarmist calls from a minority group.
This has led to a 20% reduction in our national hen laying flock, as producers have exited the industry. The tragedy for all New Zealanders is that one of the most nutritious staple foods, if available, is unaffordable to many.
This destruction of confidence and profitability is being repeated across many of our food production sectors. The impact on supply is only evident with eggs because we don’t substitute our production with imports.
This country’s pork producers have been continually improving their practices and our locally grown pork is produced with some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. Despite this, the impending new animal welfare code has been written with minimal consultation with the industry and the new space requirements not only ignore best practice elsewhere but are unaffordable to most growers.
Meanwhile our supermarkets will continue to import more pork, from countries that have no or much lower animal welfare standards. Consumers, who we are told demanded these changes, currently consume on average 14kg of cheaper imported pork compared to 8.8kg of local product.
Vegetable growers and livestock farmers are also facing a barrage of legislation, much of which has been written without any of their input. The result are many unworkable rules, and even if they can be achieved, they destroy the profitability of the businesses. Legislation such as the freshwater reforms and the taxing of methane have mandatory limits and numbers that are not even based on science.
There is a mistrust by this government of anybody involved in the businesses that they are regulating. It has taken the egg supply crisis to demonstrate the resulting decimation of our productive sector.
Consumers have choice in what they buy. Our farmers and growers have always known this, and it is a key driver of the continual improvement of what they produce and sell in a competitive market. New Zealanders are renowned for their innovation, but it relies on confidence that the regulatory regime is working with them.
What we don’t need is individual parts of the supply chain, whether it’s Government officials or supermarkets, making decisions without genuine consultation. Success is achieved when producers, marketers and regulators trust and work together to achieve top standards.