Tim Mackle: No need to bring dairying down to let others up

Other industries can thrive on the back of the agriculture sector.
Other industries can thrive on the back of the agriculture sector.

It has amazed me during all the public debate and discussion on the Fonterra botulism alert that commentary has turned to the dominance of dairying in the economy, portraying our industry as some great overbearing beast.

Let's be clear, dairy in New Zealand has not been "backed" at the expense of other sectors. Its export value has grown by 83 per cent in the last 10 years because our industry is resilient and highly competitive.

Besides being gifted with natural resources, New Zealand's dairying competitiveness has been driven by farmers co-operating, not competing with each other. Fonterra is the global face of that - with its international headquarters right here in New Zealand. As a country we need to learn from what dairy has done well and not so well, and build some new options while preserving what is special about our industry.

The dairy industry wants more industries to grow in exports, as much as anyone does. Our strength and scale can give many exporters the base on which to build their businesses.

We don't want New Zealand to be a one-trick pony. It's a case of how we strengthen and grow other industries to support the value and contribution that dairying makes to the economy.

The Gallagher Group has grown into an international security business on the back of dairying as have innovative engineering firms such as the NDA Group.

NDA Group is a world leader in the fabrication of stainless steel process vessels and heat exchangers for industry, and provides products and services to key markets around the world. The group's companies design, manufacture and service products for a wide range of process industries including the dairy, wine, brewing, chemical, mining, pulp and paper, pharmaceutical and food and beverage industries. But it began in dairy.

If we want to promote science and innovation, then look no further than the agricultural sector.

Dairy is investing heavily in science and education and many other industries will benefit from the sector's proactive work to ensure we produce more science graduates. DairyNZ has partnered with others and the Auckland University to support Masters and doctorate students. We run scholarship programmes, with no guarantee recipients will work in dairy. We just know New Zealand needs to support science and innovation if dairy and other key export industries are to survive and thrive. We don't just need farmers - we need geneticists, scientists, economists and analysts, trade experts - and they need jobs. The scale of our industry gives them confidence to study knowing there will be employment.

We constantly hear Treasury and economic development officials talk about the need for New Zealand companies to lift their export game - and for business leaders to be ambitious beyond the bach, boat and BMW. Dairying has done that.

Around 45,000 people are employed in the dairy sector, including an estimated 10,000 who are self-employed. This does not include thousands in supporting and service industries.

In some districts, such as South Taranaki, the dairy sector accounts for one in every five jobs. Fonterra is owned by more than 10,000 individual farming businesses. Two-thirds of New Zealand's dairy farms are still owner-operated. There are a number of other successful, smaller dairy companies too, such as Westland, Open Country, Synlait, Tatua and Miraka. Dairying isn't too dominant - it's just been one of the few industries in New Zealand organised so a large number of individual farmers can compete globally in a challenging marketplace.

Of course, dairying's international reputation brings with it risks as well as responsibilities. We are all working hard each day to live up to consumer, customer and community expectations, including environmental stewardship.

But let's focus on the issue, not the industry. The lessons from current and past episodes are ongoing but industry and government officials are taking them seriously and we want to ensure they don't happen again.

Trade Minister Tim Groser had the right attitude when he said that we should be adding to the extraordinary strengths we have within agriculture.

It's not a matter of taking us down, to bring everyone else up. It's up to other businesses and industries to realise their ambitions, and in some cases be more ambitious.

Tim Mackle is chief executive for DairyNZ, an industry body.

- NZ Herald

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