Think local, buy local won’t feed the world

Denying global free trade will prevent farmers from supplying the food to feed the world, John Allen, the chief executive officer of the New Zealand ministry of foreign affairs and trade, told delegates at the International Farm Management Association congress in Methven, New Zealand.

“Farmers are faced with extraordinary opportunities. Opportunities presented by a growing population, opportunities represented by countries. Countries like China, which will suck up everything we produce and if anything is left, it will have to go to India.

“People need to eat, but if we are to deliver the food needed in 2050 for the world population, there are a number of things we need to focus on as an agricultural community,” he said.

“First, to deliver to that agenda trade must be free. I know some will think that means New Zealand will unleash a wave of milk on the world with our 2% of production, which will create turmoil and destroy returns.

“But that is fundamentally flawed, not simply because New Zealand doesn’t produce much on the world stage, but because there are opportunities for all of us in the markets that are developing and growing, and those opportunities can only be delivered on if trade is free.”

At a time of global crisis and development, there was a real instinct to look inward, rather than outward, and think local, buy local, he said.

“But it is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong because think local, buy local will not feed the world. If we don’t have free trade, then the collaborations necessary to deliver to that opportunity will not occur, and the specialisation that has to lay at the heart of agriculture’s response won’t be able to be sustained.

“Focusing on free trade, for me, is more than simply the voice of a small country that is potentially vulnerable to market closure. While it is undeniable that it is in New Zealand’s interests for trade to be free, it is in my view much wider than that.

“It is in the international interest that trade is free, and barriers to trade, conversation and collaboration will have an effect on our ability to deliver the food we need.”

Science would also play a pivotal role in feeding the world, he said. “We need to stand against those who would stand against science.”

That didn’t mean science should have a free reign, he stressed. But underpinning the scientific process were ideas and thinking, and for those to be developed, and perhaps commercialised, there needed to be a conversation between scientists, farmers, consumers and ethicists.

“It is a conversation very different from those we have been having, and one that needs to get richer, and, frankly, needs greater funding.”

He also called for there to be improved on-farm returns. Even with current higher commodity prices, input costs were also rising, he said. “I don’t think we can assume we are going to see greater on-farm returns simply because commodity prices are high.”

Higher on-farm returns were needed so farmers could invest in the science that would enable them to succeed.

“And we also need the drivers of the future in the industry. We need to attract the people who will have the drive, capability, intellect and entrepreneurship to be able to deliver the future vision we have, and we will not do it unless we have sustained on-farm returns.”

Mr Allen also had a warning for New Zealand farmers. “Listen to the markets [China] we see as huge opportunities in the future, and recognise that building consumer trust matters.

“Listen to the Chinese, when they say you need to ensure the environmental impact of dairying and agriculture are being appropriately managed. Recognise it is not true to say that if you are going into the UK market you have to worry about that stuff, but if you’re not you don’t have to at all.

“That is short-sighted and wrong. And I don’t believe the New Zealand agricultural sector, or indeed the world agricultural sector, should abdicate its responsibilities for environmental or animal welfare simply because you’ve take the decision to be at the cost end of the spectrum and you think you can do what you like.”

More from the 2011 International Farm Management Congress in New Zealand.