Damien O'Connor is shaking up old thinking on agri-food with his ginger group, he tells Fran O'Sullivan.

Moral philosophising is not what urbanites would expect to hear from Damien O'Connor whose roots are firmly embedded in dairy farming on the South Island's West Coast.

But says O'Connor, "Agriculture is our noblest profession. This is an absolutely core component of our existence. People expect food to be delivered. But there is a complete disconnect to the realities of how it has been produced."

O'Connor is concerned NZ's primary sector has a bad rap; its image marred by controversies over "dirty dairying", and "animal welfare" when most farmers work to meet their responsibilities. "We are feeding the world. It should be a challenge to our best and brightest."

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There is a strong body of opinion on this point. From Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol who opined "the experience of ages has shown that a man who works on the land is purer, nobler, higher and more moral" to the American founding father Thomas Jefferson who said "agriculture is our wisest pursuit because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness."

O'Connor — now in the Ministerial driving seat in charge of a portfolio which embraces Agriculture, Biosecurity, Food safety and Rural communities — believes the sector needs to reclaim its moral purpose. Particularly as last year's election put farming in a harsh spotlight.

"We have been through a long period with the previous Government, and before that, in steady growth — particularly dairy," says O'Connor. "That Government had a view we needed to just double exports — 'growth for growth's sake' objectives rather than asking what the net benefit to the country was from say increasing cow numbers."

Meeting dairy export demand has resulted in some additional value-add "but we've seen a lot of that created by other than Fonterra".

To O'Connor there is still just too much old thinking in what he calls the "agrifood business".

He wants to bring a mix of creative and disruptive thinking to bear.

But he ruffled feathers when he appointed a "group of visionary leaders" to a new Primary Sector Council and left NZ's biggest exporter, Fonterra, off the list.

O'Connor is unapologetic: "I am not going to allow the sometimes conservative — and sector-interested thinking — to dominate this big challenge".

The council's chair is former Zespri CEO Lain Jager. It includes former Pipfruit NZ chair Nadine Turley, Puawai Wereta, who is GM Sustainability and Innovation at Tuaropaki Trust, KPMG farm enterprise specialist Julia Jones, Tony Egan who is MD of Greenlea Premier Meats and chairs the Agricultural and Marketing Research and Development Trust, John Brakenridge who is CEO of NZ Merino and the founder of the Te Hono Bootcamp Initiative, Stephanie Howard who is Projects Director at the Sustainability Council NZ and is researching new genetic modification techniques and the governance of nanotechnologies, and Sunfed CEO and founder Shama Sukul Lee who has experience in plant protein food tech, software development, business logistics and commercial strategy.

Other council members are: Dairy NZ's strategy leader Mark Paine, Horticulture NZ chair Julian Raine, Neil Richardson who chairs the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, Wakatu Incorporation director Miriana Stephens, John Rodwell who is Executive Director of Lindis Crossing Station, Steve Saunders — Managing Director of Plus Group companies and is the co-founder of Newnham Park Horticulture Innovation Centre and the Chancellor of Lincoln University Steve Smith.

Also invited to meetings are the Young Horticulturist and Young Farmer of the Year.

Says O'Connor," I wanted a mix of disruptive and passionate thinking. New and old generations. A mix of sectors but not representative of each."

Their task is to drive a new agrifood vision. "Does that vision coalesce around ideas of sustainability, grower-to-plate storytelling, pasture-fed protein, smarter use of water and appealing to consumers who are prepared to pay more for products that align with their personal values? So far that mix of creative and disruptive thinking has identified issues".

Among them — bringing better organisation to the tertiary sector to build capability for the future; succession issues with ageing farm owners; determining just what is "value-add" and where the benefits should accrue and the mix of investment from foreign direct investment to bank loans.

Then there are the hot button issues like genetic engineering and its place in NZ's future.

What level of farming intensification is appropriate? Have we reached peak cow? Ensuring the major tree-planting exercise under way is sustainable.

O'Connor says the traditional business leaders have had "all the time in the world they needed. There has been a late rush to do that through a group led by Mike Peterson to engage with Government."

The Farmers Leaders Group includes luminaries from Federated Farmers, Dairy NZ, NZ Beef and Lamb, Irrigation NZ, the Fonterra Shareholders Council, Meat Industry Association and the Federation of Maori Authorities. Peterson, who is NZ's Agriculture Envoy, is leader.

The group recently joined Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to commit with the Government to achieve net zero emissions from agrifood production by 2050.

Explains O'Connor: "As a government we have firmly stated our bottomlines to water, climate change and emissions production. We are working through very carefully and pragmatically the challenging issues for our farming sector.

"Just addressing those issues won't guarantee a future."

He intends his ginger group will keep the pressure on. "There is a new generation in the wings actively contributing across all parts of primary sector business which is some ways held back by traditional thinking."

That said, when it comes to tradition, O'Connor is a staunch supporter of co-operative structures. They may be still a bit inward looking when "we need to face up to what is happening internationally.

"Farmers need to appreciate without co-op structures they are at the mercy of the international market place. But they need to understand shared risk and rewards — not just take, take, take."

Here are three issues on O'Connor's plate.

Challenging trade environment

The CPTPP — Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — is a major step forward. The agreement has still to be ratified by all the parties, but O'Connor believes indications the UK wants to come on board are promising.

He also has an associate responsibility for trade and export growth which will see him on the road offshore in pursuit of new markets for NZ's agrifood sector.

"The trade environment is particularly challenging at the moment. While the CPTPP is an outstanding success, elsewhere there is a nationalistic approach prevailing in countries traditionally open to trade."

"David Parker (Trade Minister), Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters (Foreign Minister) speak out often and quite firmly. The risk in my view is overdoing it and being shut out.
"We push as hard as we can way beyond our weight."

Alternative proteins

Air New Zealand sparked controversy when it announced it would serve Impossible Burgers on some flights out of the US. But says O'Connor, alternative proteins are a reality. "Milk and meat are under threat from strong competitors from plant-based companies. It can be a threat or an opportunity — it comes down to the way we approach it.

"Take meat — there is a lot of noise about "taste pure", "natural" and "clean green" but there are still a number of highly competitive companies not competing the way they should.

"The obvious conclusion is we need to be focused on food and nutrition and health — not just lamb and and milk. Unless we pick up the pace we could be left behind."

DIRA Review

The review of the 2001 Dairy Industry Restructuring Act is a "crucial component of some forward thinking for NZ agriculture."

O'Connor contends the Fonterra board has been focused on capital rather than innovation. Significantly, some of his Cabinet colleagues, such as Shane Jones, believe the Government should take the opportunity to restructure Fonterra.

O'Connor is concerned Fonterra's offshore competitors based in New Zealand (predominantly supplied with milk by Fonterra under the DIRA rules) are more to the fore with innovative exports like fresh milk and a focus on driving new markets.