News and Events

5 minutes with Mike Petersen

New Zealand Special Agricultural Trade Envoy.

How did you go from farmer to New Zealand Special Agricultural Trade Envoy?
This role is unique in the world of food and agriculture. It was established following the national agricultural reforms of 1985, to promote our story of reform in other agricultural nations from the perspective of a practising farmer. I have always held a strong interest in trade and opening new market opportunities for New Zealand’s agricultural sector, and I was offered this position in 2014. This appointment is made jointly by the Minister of Trade and Minister of Agriculture but importantly I am not a government official – I speak for the industry. The role has evolved over the years, and the reforms of New Zealand agriculture have become well known. My job is to represent the interests of the sheep, beef, dairy, horticulture and wine industries both here and offshore. I advocate for improved market access and agricultural reform, and promote our sector through agricultural diplomacy.

How does your role help our primary sector, in terms of bringing our produce to the world?
New Zealand is actually a small producer in the world of food but with a small domestic market, our primary sector is reliant on access to world markets. For more than 30 years, successive governments have realised the importance of diversifying and opening new markets. We have worked hard to grow trade through new market opportunities and this has contributed to much of the success we see today in the primary sector. It is important to realise that trade agreements are the enabler for businesses to access markets. New Zealand has built an enviable network of trade agreements right across the world. However, the government can only open the door for trade and businesses need to walk through and take their products to the world. My role helps with this, for example I often travel to countries ahead of trade negotiations, to promote national interests and break down many of the myths about New Zealand agriculture. When required, I also provide advice and support as an industry voice alongside trade negotiation.

Trade has been thrust into the spotlight over the past few years in Europe, China and the USA, among others. What is the largest threat to our primary sector exports?
Two of the biggest risks for the New Zealand food and agricultural sector are losing access to markets and biosecurity. The biggest threat for us in the world of trade is losing access to markets, particularly in relation to other food-producing countries. There is much talk about the trade tensions between two of our largest trading partners – the USA and China. There is no doubt that this dispute has potential to spill over and affect New Zealand exports to world markets. Regarding Brexit, what I say today will probably change by the time this goes to print! Literally no one knows what the exact outcome is going to be. There is no doubt that the move by the UK to leave Europe is certainly a big risk for us and the key issue for New Zealand will be the future relationship between the UK and the remaining 27 countries of Europe. This is fast moving and there is considerable uncertainty. It is looking increasingly likely that some agreement will be reached and an extension to Article 50 will be required to pass the enabling legislation. In this scenario, a transition period will be in place to enable New Zealand and other third-party countries to finalise their relationships in this part of the world. The other big risk for New Zealand as a food-producing and exporting nation is the risk of biosecurity incursions. Being an island nation has real benefits for biosecurity but we have seen in recent years that this is no guarantee of protection. There are many pests and diseases that would be catastrophic for our primary sector if they became established here. The resulting cost on industry and loss of access to markets remains a real threat to our primary sector.

On the flip side of the coin, where are our greatest opportunities?
The opportunities for our primary sector are immense in a world where consumers are becoming more discerning about food. New Zealand should have no ambitions to feed the world, as we can only feed approximately 40 million consumers per year. In a 2050 world of 9 billion people, the focus of our food producers and exporters should be on those who don’t even ask the price. Free-range, grass-fed, naturally produced, hormone-free, antibioticfree, unprocessed food is what wealthy people are prepared to pay for. These attributes sum up New Zealand and we are unique in the world for being able to offer these with the integrity, trust and food safety that consumers are also seeking. The production and productivity gains made are delivering some of the most carbonfriendly and water-efficient food in the world, which is becoming more desirable for discerning consumers. Importantly, these consumers do not all live in one market. Market segments and targeting clubs or groups of consumers is now easily achievable and the internet and social media can be our friend in this approach.

As awareness around social licence grows, so too does the spotlight on New Zealand – given how far our produce has to travel. How do we market our exports to offset this challenge?
It is true that there is a trend towards “buy local” to reduce emissions and to support local communities. However, this desire can only utilise a relatively small amount of the world’s food. The seasonal nature of food production means that New Zealand often has a counter-seasonal opportunity in a number of the large consumer markets in the world. For many shoppers, the sheer quality and attractive attributes of our food surpasses the desire to buy local. In many ways, New Zealand has relied on its reputation in food for too long. We have always believed our reputation will be enough to be able to command higher prices. However this is no longer the case, with many other countries stepping up and promoting themselves as the natural alternative. In order to secure higher prices for higher quality food in offshore markets, we need to improve our storytelling. This is happening but if we want to retain our place as one of the world’s most successful and profitable food sectors – continued differentiation and better storytelling will be key.