By James Penn

This year's KPMG Agribusiness Agenda suggests there has been a significant shift in the extent to which agribusiness leaders are placing stock in political outcomes.

Ian Proudfoot, Global Head of Agribusiness at KPMG New Zealand, remarked that whereas 2014 saw "palpable" anxiety about the prospects of a change of Government, this year's survey indicated a community more concerned about the decisions they make themselves than those made in the Beehive.

This is the result of the industry moving quicker than any Government could, as it pivots towards producing artisan, niche products at the high end of the market, as opposed to commodities where volume is the key metric of success.

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"When you are focused on what volume you can produce, the Government shapes your future as it sets the rules that determine how much you will be able to grow," explained Proudfoot.

"As an organisation pivots towards a consumer-focused value story, the rules that shape the future are no longer determined by the domestic Government but by the markets and consumers to whom we sell.

"They are tougher masters than is any regulatory authority."

However, to the extent that the Government can have an influence, biosecurity standards are the number one priority. The Agenda reports a sector comfortable with how the Government has done in this area to date, with investment in the Biosecurity 2025 strategy welcomed - but the leaders want a proactive system.

"It must be focused on preventing threats from ever reaching our borders rather than be geared towards attempting to eradicate an incursion once it arrives at the border," suggested the report. Other matters such as the need to deliver high speed rural broadband, signing free trade agreements that deliver access to high-value markets, and delivering R&D incentives also ranked highly.

Interestingly, the survey returned the need to increase rural-urban understanding as the eighth highest priority - up significantly from a ranking of 23 in 2016.

"The water issue has contributed to concerns that the gap between the agri-food sector and the urban community, particularly in Auckland, has become so deep and wide that bridging it will present the industry with a significant, if not insurmountable, challenge," warned the report.

Recommended remedies to this challenge include demonstrating tangible progress on issues that matter to the community, such as environmental standards, while also drawing connections between the food we all eat each day and New Zealand's rural sector.

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Consistent with the suggestion that agricultural industries move into higher-value markets, the report also called for an improvement in the global promotion of Kiwi brands - and importantly, brands that tell the New Zealand story.

Government may have a role to play in harnessing New Zealand's expatriate network through the medium of food, and connecting border protection services to our food culture.

According to Proudfoot, every part of the community must maintain a focus on the premium end of the market: "We believe the future for the New Zealand agri-food sector is as an artisan, niche producer of premium-quality, safe and sustainable food and beverage, fibre and timber products."

What the agribusiness leaders want

• Managing consumer relationships

- Prioritising provenance branding, co-innovation with customers, embedding resources (including people) into export markets and developing a NZ integrity mark highlight the focus being placed on managing consumer relationships.

• New Zealand's unique food culture - Nobody goes out for a "New Zealand meal", in fact it is unclear to most New Zealanders and visitors to the country what a "New Zealand meal" actually is. While we grow some of the best food in the world, it is used to make other nations' cuisines. There is an urgent need to strengthen our unique food culture.

• High-quality trade agreements - Leaders placed greater priority on securing high-quality trade agreements, reflecting the shift in the trade environment as a result of Brexit and the election of President Trump. Industry leaders suggest free trade as we know it will only survive if everybody benefits; we must seek to combat social inequality and better disperse the benefits of trade to retain market access into the future.

• Swimmable water - Much discussion related to water and the impact this has on the wider community's confidence in farmers to protect and restore the environment. The industry uses science to defend its position, but this is an emotional issue that cuts to the heart of being a New Zealander. The message was clear: swimmable must mean swimmable and not "scientifically swimmable in 2040". Bold action is needed on water and the environment to preserve the license to operate.

• Alternative proteins - Recent transactions suggest that alternative proteins are set to become a material part of the global diet. Understanding these technologies, their strengths and weaknesses, is critical to protecting our natural protein markets. We ignore these technologies at our peril.

• Biotechnologies - The conversation around biotechnologies has evolved; it is no longer about whether these technologies will be adopted, given the benefits they can deliver, but about the regulatory framework that is needed to manage their application. It is time New Zealand reviewed its rules so we remain competitive and address each product on its merits.

• Leveraging data - Concerns were expressed around how the sector is leveraging data that is being collected, with some leaders suggesting we are moving backwards comparatively to other countries. Companies are keeping close control over their data and seeking opportunities to monetise it, however without collaboration it is unlikely any significant financial benefits will crystallise.

Source: 2017 KPMG Agribusiness Agenda: The Recipe for Action.