Time for agriculture to wake up and smell the chocolate

Cadbury's decision to move manufacturing from Dunedin did little to help the company's brand in New Zealand. Photo: ODT files
Cadbury's decision to move manufacturing from Dunedin did little to help the company's brand in New Zealand. Photo: ODT files
A decade ago, Whittaker's chocolate launched an aggressive comparative advertising campaign pitched against competitor Cadbury.

It was a brave move, Whittaker's attacking Cadbury's use of vegetable oil in part-replacement for cocoa butter and the reduction of the size of its bars without a concurrent cost reduction.

Such campaigns risk a thorough examination of one's own backyard and, potentially, litigation if details about the competitor are wrong.

For Whittaker's it worked, the campaign was effective and memorable and a talking point at the water cooler. My family weighed into the debate, conducting a blind taste panel test at the dining room table comparing Whittaker's and Cadbury dairy milk chocolate - the result: four out of five of us preferred Whittaker's chocolate.

The only one who preferred Cadbury's was my daughter, who was only 2 at the time, so was forgiven for her lack of sophistication. We have managed to convert her since.

Whittaker's has gone from strength to strength since then and has been voted New Zealand's most trusted brand for the last eight years (Readers Digest).

The same cannot be said of Cadbury, which has contentiously moved manufacturing from Dunedin and recently continued its barrage of insults to consumers with bizarrely shaped marshmallow Easter eggs - the only Cadbury product I was still eating!

The Whittaker's v Cadbury analogy struck me as an interesting case for pondering the future of agricultural products in New Zealand.

Sometimes in business, it is as important to articulate who you do not want to be as it is to articulate who you do want to be. Farming in New Zealand is under pressure, especially as many of our products are derived from livestock.

Land-use changes into horticulture, cropping and forestry will have some effect but given the Western consumer's shift towards plant-based proteins, we do need to ask ourselves about the commercial sustainability of livestock farming and what the future is for meat and milk.

So, going back to my Whittaker's v Cadbury analogy, the ''new'' kids on the block are plant-based proteins although, like Whittaker's, plant-based proteins have been around for a long time - they are just presenting themselves in a more exciting way.

Recently I read something by Philip Lymbery, the author of Farmageddon and Dead Zone, which confirmed for me that a battle against plant-based proteins is the wrong choice. The real battle is against something else:

''We need to go beyond an isolated approach. Not just looking at the technical problems around welfare, not just looking at the technical issues around the environment, not just looking at food security in isolation, but putting all of these issues together, then we can see the real problem that lies at the heart of our food system - industrial agriculture.''

Is industrial agriculture New Zealand agriculture's equivalent to Cadbury? If we were to ask ourselves, ''who do we not want to be?'' I think our answer would be the type of intensive feedlot farming where animals are pumped full of antibiotics, grain-fed and unable to exhibit ''normal animal behaviour''.

Philip Lymbery takes the argument beyond livestock farming and into cropping and horticulture. In his work he criticises monocultural cropping and the heavy use of pesticides, all of which underpin the majority of plant-based diets.

If New Zealand agriculture were to collaborate across sectors, would the ultimate market-position look like a boutique chocolate maker with ingredients sourced from the best production systems and the highest quality manufacturing?

In my ideal world, yes, but is our backyard in a position to go up against the Cadbury equivalent - the industrial farming giants? Unfortunately, not yet. There are feedlot farmers in New Zealand and there are certainly many examples of monoculture farming and horticultural practices. It would probably take a decade to change this at a national level, but it wouldn't be impossible.

Understanding very clearly who we do not want to be is a first step, and an important one.

I have little faith that the entire agricultural industry could co-operate to the point where we had a national strategy, but there is no reason why any one sector couldn't take the bull by the horns, as it were, and take on industrial agriculture for its product range. It need to look no further than Porirua and Whittaker's for inspiration!

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.


Western fads. Synthetic fibre.

Market to Asia. It's East, from an English perspective.