Bruce Wills: More Kiwis needed to grow NZ exports

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Up-scaling our domestic markets through population growth essential to increasing success abroad.

New Zealand is blessed with an abundance of arable land, water, know-how. Photo / Dannevirke News
New Zealand is blessed with an abundance of arable land, water, know-how. Photo / Dannevirke News

Last week, the International Herald Tribune supposedly blew the lid on New Zealand's "clean green 100 per cent Pure" brand.

That New Zealanders don't do moderation is evident in the comments extracted by the journalist who wrote it. I won't go as far as the email Mark Unsworth sent to Russel Norman about Massey's Mike Joy - the one that ended up on Facebook quickly followed by the Herald - but what Unsworth wrote will have many in the Horizons Region nodding in agreement. Sometimes, as President of Federated Farmers, it can feel as if you are a lone voice.

We want people and the media especially to look at what we do and how we do it, because when people come on-farm, they learn we are way up there in terms of environmental performance.

The International Herald Tribune piece and Dr Joy's comments reveal a contradiction in our collective psyche. We seem to delight in telling anyone who will listen, just how bad we are.

The larger the stage it seems, the wilder the claims. I tend to believe that for all of our faults - and we do have them - we do more good in this world than bad.

Reflecting on what we told the same journalist writing from Hong Kong about New Zealand, I was struck by the paucity of coverage when agriculture does well. Take Dr Jeremy Hill becoming the first New Zealander to head the International Dairy Federation in 109 years.

Or, as I was reminded of in an email from a contact at the Department of Conservation, what about the limited coverage of Tim Aitken and Lucy Robertshawe; Marks & Spencer's number one farm supplier on earth?

Ironically, one solution to our myopic view of the world is more people.

Scale Up or Die, released recently by the NZIER, argues convincingly that successful exporting nations are not only closer to their markets, but have large home markets as well. It is the domestic market that helps create the scale needed for export success.

One hundred and twelve years ago, New Zealand was a nation of one-million people versus the 4.4 million we have today. The most recent 1.2 million of us coming in only the last 32 years.

The NZIER argues we need 15 million Kiwis by 2060 because, "If New Zealand's biggest impediment to better economic performance is an absence of scale, there is only one way to overcome this over the long term and that is to grow the population through more migrants."

It is certainly a plan bolder and more convincing than finding new ways to tax people or regulating our way to greatness. New Zealand exports are more likely to grow if successive governments target a population of 15 million by 2060 because more people bring more capital and ideas.

They also bring more problems over land use and the environment. That seems solvable with local government reforms underway and a hierarchy of land-use; reusing previously developed land first, increasing densities and leaving greenfield as the last resort. The advantage of this is that it makes better public transport economically feasible. Given Labour's proposed "KiwiBuild" seems yet more single level houses, the one sure-fire way to reduce section price is to build up making the residential footprint more efficient.

If we can add more people without adding to the sprawl, I can confidently say that in terms of value and in terms of productivity, New Zealand farming is the star turn. Globally, our agriculture is Hollywood and Wellywood rolled into one because New Zealand's core competitive advantage is food production. More people, more capital and more ideas will spur on the value add.

It is why perhaps New Zealand's brand should be about getting "NZ Inside".

Between 2012 and 2050, ANZ expects New Zealand to capture an additional $500 billion to $1.3 trillion in agricultural exports. This is an immense opportunity, so striking the right balance between growth and the environment is important. With good management and good science we can continue to improve how we interact with the environment and grow the economy. We can grow more jobs with an ever lighter footprint.

The solution is not complicated either: it is trusting Kiwis to make their own spending decisions so Government spends less; it is focusing on outcomes rather than process; it is about trusting the collective wisdom of a community to decide water limits for themselves.

We produce safe, quality food in a world that is crying out for more. We have great water nestled among some of the best scenery on earth. We are an educated and innovative people with an exciting future. We are the lucky country but could be even luckier, with more Kiwis.


Bruce Wills is president of Federated Farmers

- NZ Herald

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