‘Real opportunity’ to carve out niche

University of Auckland senior lecturer in marketing Dr Michael Lee speaks to attendees at the red...
University of Auckland senior lecturer in marketing Dr Michael Lee speaks to attendees at the red meat sector conference in Dunedin yesterday. Photo: Peter McIntosh.
It is time to refresh the red meat sector’s strategy, which is facing "headwinds", the industry’s conference was told yesterday. Sally Rae reports.

New Zealand’s red meat sector is on track for its vision of an $11.4billion sector by 2025, Beef and Lamb New Zealand chairman James Parsons says.

There was a "real opportunity" to carve out a niche by telling its story as ethical food producers. However, there were also a few "headwinds", Mr Parsons told those attending the red meat sector conference in Dunedin yesterday.

Views on synthetic meat proteins ranged from there being nothing to worry about to "we’ll be obsolete in no time" and he believed the industry needed to pitch itself "somewhere in the middle".

There was some work to do around greenhouse gas emissions and another headwind was around social licence to operate.

As more New Zealanders became urbanised, the connection was being lost with the rural sector and there were also many people living in rural areas who did not understand farming.

Having just been overseas,  he was "staggered" by the awareness in markets in the United Kingdom and United States of the water quality debate in New Zealand and that was quite concerning, Mr Parsons said.

It was time to sit down with NGOs and others "really putting the acid on farmers" and say "we are owning our problems here, but don’t undermine us internationally", he said.

Six years on from the launch of the red meat sector strategy, he believed it was time to look at refreshing that strategy.

Dr Michael Lee, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland, whose research interests are in anti-consumption and consumer resistance, said the perception of stock farming in New Zealand had been "heading downhill" over the past five years.

"My research suggests the more successful you get, the bigger the bullseye on your back."

It was an age where perception  and  opinions mattered more than facts — ‘‘that is the reality of business these days’’.

Insect protein was becoming more popular and synthetic meat was  a hot topic.

Plant-based protein was being made to look, feel and taste like meat and retailers would go where  consumer sentiment was.

"It’s a brave new world out there," Dr Lee said.

Germany’s ministry for the environment had banned meat at all official functions.

"If that is not a warning bell, I don’t know what is. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how things could go sour," he said.

Despite those threats, there was an opportunity for New Zealand to be a world leader in producing  high-quality meat.

To fully leverage its strategic position, New Zealand must focus on high value rather than high volume. To do that, it must champion the role of the "wider system" in natural meat production rather than isolation and industrialisation. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright said biological emissions from agriculture were a major challenge facing New Zealand’s pastoral farmers — along with water quality and synthetic protein.

Debate over whether methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture should be included in the emissions trading scheme had been going on for 14 years without resolution.

There were good arguments both ways, Dr Wright said.

It was time  to get out of that "very polarising" debate and ask the broader question of what should be done about those gases from agriculture, and figure out how to remain profitable with fewer animals.

Progress must be made on climate change "and you and everyone else needs a measure of predictability", she told those at the conference.

Climate change was the ultimate inter-generational issue and the responsibility of  governments in the future, not just the current government or the next.

New Zealand’s emissions had "bounced around a bit" since 1990, with the likes of recessions and drought, but, unlike the United Kingdom, the country’s emissions had kept on climbing.

She believed that New Zealand should have  UK-style climate law, Dr Wright said.

Rabobank animal proteins and sustainability analyst Blake Holgate spoke about added value, saying it was a term that got "bandied around a lot".

Adding value was not new; it was something that had been done at least since February 1882, when  Dunedin sailed from Port Chalmers to the UK with its consignment of frozen meat.

New technologies and innovations were continually being developed to add value. But despite those developments, red meat in general was still largely traded as a commodity product.

Over the past two to five years, there had been a shift in focus in New Zealand agriculture to much more investment in added-value products. That was "fantastic" and it was important that continued, Mr Holgate said.

A declining sheep flock, increased compliance costs and protein consumption disruption were among the factors  pushing the sector towards greater added-value investment. The changing environment was dictating the need for that investment, he said.

When it came to the "winning formula" for New Zealand lamb, it was about premium products that must deliver consistent quality.

It was also about articulating and marketing the New Zealand lamb story — creating a unique story around New Zealand red meat that resonated with a targeted consumer so they were willing to pay more for it.

There was not a "one size fits all" with adding value; strategies would vary for different markets and consumers.

When it came to telling the New Zealand story, the challenge was "creating that unique proposition in a sea of sameness".

And that story needed to be bold and innovative, backed up over time through an accreditation scheme and traceability.

The consumer was key and there was an increased focus from industry to get inside the heads of those consumers, Mr Holgate  said.

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