Outbreaks, Drought, Climate Change and the Rise of Plant-based Alternatives. Along with the rest of the world and other industries, the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus which began in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019 has had a severe impact on the agribusiness community.

Whilst the long-term effects of the virus can only be revealed with time, the immediate impacts of the virus are mostly around the huge disruption to supply chains.

But the pandemic has not been the only issue that the industry has been facing, parallel factors effecting the sector include the recent drought, and of course climate change as well as other recent agri-specific outbreaks and a rise in plant-based diets.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) released its quarter report in mid-March stating that the estimated export revenue for the primary sector for the year to June 2020 is $1.3 billion lower than in December, which also includes the impact of the recent drought over the summer months in the North Island.

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However, the sector is perhaps one of the better-equipped for such scenarios; used to dealing with an array of various outbreaks that have an impact on its production, more recent examples include Psa – the kiwifruit bacterial disease and the Mycoplasma bovis disease that hit the cattle farming community resulting in the cull of more than 100,000 cows.

Ministry for Primary Industries Biosecurity NZ have long had plans in place in relation to any unforeseen outbreaks that may occur to aid companies and farmers in such times of crisis.

Federated Farmers say that they have 'made available to all members advice on health and safety aspects of Coronavirus' in order to aid the farming members in 'looking after themselves and their employees, as well as their obligations as employers'.

Federated Farmers themselves, in line with the rest of non-essential services of New Zealand, have been able to continue keeping operations functioning with staff using the available technologies to work from home.

MPI have also told us that they are closely monitoring and responding to farmer and grower welfare and needs.

Ruth Fairhall, Deputy Director-General Policy & Trade said: "We're in regular touch with the primary industries, including the export sector, to ensure they have the latest information, and to see where we can provide support. MPI, along with other primary sector organisations, are also encouraging those working in the primary industries to ensure they have plans in place to ensure continuity for their business activities, such as farming and growing operations."

MPI, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE) are 'carefully monitoring how the novel coronavirus is affecting our primary industries' and said that like any business, both farming and growing operations differ greatly across the country and have various specific needs.

In line with New Zealand's nationwide Alert Level 4 implementation, the farming and growing industry continued as essential services. As a result of this, MPI set up a register for safe practice in the sector, which business were asked to register with by 27 March. This allowed them to assess and ensure safety assurances from essential food and beverage production and processing operators that their processes successfully protected workers and the public by limiting interactions between staff and reducing the potential spread of Covid-19.

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As things continue changed rapidly on a daily basis, various sites had been set up in order to allow agribusinesses easy access to the latest information on how the impact of the pandemic may affect their business; NZTE have set up the page covid19.nzte.govt.nz in order to ensure New Zealand exporters have up-to-date information, as well as establishing an advisory panel to talk directly with businesses who require specialist advice or who are facing severe business disruption.

New Zealand farmers arse no stranger to working through droughts, but MPI says the intensity and scale of this year's drought "has taken some by surprise with water levels in some creeks and aquifers lower than ever recorded".

They say as a result and compounded by Covid-19 some of the usual options to mitigate drought impacts have been disrupted.

"We have been keeping a close eye on particular industries feeling the effects more keenly, including the meat industry where early kill of drought-affected stock is leading to a shortage in cold store capacity. This has resulted in some meat products being diverted to lower value markets, and increasing constraints on killing space at meat plants."

The Government has invested an additional $2m into boosting recovery, through extra funding for the Rural Support Trusts, additional Recovery Coordinators in regions that need it, an industry-led Feed Working Group, and additional animal welfare expertise, say MPI.

Federated Farmers said of the drought: "Our arable farmers have been less affected, and there is straw, hay and grain feed available to be transported to drought-hit regions. Federated Farmers has encouraged farmers to create feed budgets and work collectively within their own region to source bulk feed, which could help them broker better transport costs."

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When it comes to the issue of climate change, Federated Farmers don't shy away from their views on government-issued targets:

"It's well known that Federated Farmers rejects the government's biological methane reduction targets as unwarranted and without scientific basis. Market gaps from any loss of meat and production on our shores will be simply taken up by higher emission producers in other countries."

Sam McIvor, chief executive of Beef + Lamb New Zealand, said the sector is focused on continuing to improve its environmental footprint, "building on the major improvements we have made over the last few decades. We have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by over 30 per cent since 1990 and are investing in methods to reduce this further."

He also noted the importance that the majority of research done around global warming within the industry is based on grain-fed production and that New Zealand has a very different profile.

"For example, only seven per cent of land in sheep and beef production in New Zealand is suitable for cropping; plant-based production in New Zealand overwhelmingly has a higher irrigation footprint, and many have significantly higher nitrate leaching rates than pastoral farming."

The rise of plant-based meat alternatives isn't a threat to the meat industry, says Federated Farmers: "While there is a growing trend for the production of plant-based proteins, meat remains a highly popular source of nutrition in NZ.

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"Our exports are aimed at the premium consumer. Dairy, lamb and beef exports continue to grow year over year, driven by sustained and increasing global demand for our high quality, grass-fed, environmentally sustainable products."

McIvor, CEO of Beef + Lamb say the quality of meat produced in New Zealand means that the industry continues to thrive, regardless of the trend of plant-based alternatives.

"Consumer research shows there will continue to be a market for high-quality, grass-fed, sustainable produced red meat and there's room in the market place for both alternative proteins and genuine red meat.

"The same values that are driving some consumers to try alternative protein products are also seeing many more consumers, especially overseas, shift away from unsustainably factory farmed red meat and instead purchasing NZ's grass-fed beef and lamb.

"The carbon footprint of producing one kilo of sheep and beef production in New Zealand is also one quarter of the global average.

MPI don't see there being any real negative competition between the real deal and plant-based alternatives coming out of NZ, but rather recognises the opportunity for growth.

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"MPI's Sustainable Food & Fibres Futures (SFF Futures) fund has received a number of enquiries and applications looking at alternative proteins and land uses.

"There is not a detectable impact of these products on market demand for our other main food exports. We are seeing an increasing number of value-added processed products targeted at those seeking a plant-based meal, where options were previously fairly limited, which is attracting consumers who are seeking these products."

Despite the ongoing challenges the industry faces, it's clear that New Zealand is well-placed to tackle these, and even utilise lessons gained to ensure the sector sees continued growth.