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Allan Barber finds that the new normal for the red meat sector will be very different to the old, pre-Covid normal. The sector's customers and end users are moving on quickly

Allan Barber finds that the new normal for the red meat sector will be very different to the old, pre-Covid normal. The sector's customers and end users are moving on quickly

The Red Meat Sector Conference, held in Rotorua at the end of July, was a combination of celebrations, opportunities and challenges. It was the first such conference since pre-Covid days and, although some of the themes of 2019 received more emphasis like the importance of China and telling a compelling story to engage with today’s consumers, others had emerged from further back in the queue. The Conference theme was Looking to the Future.

Issues that have risen to the top of the pile since then are regulation, becoming carbon neutral or positive, food sustainability, the opportunity to capture the regenerative space, and the importance of developing performance measures to substantiate claims in all these areas. Another area of note was more about operations than aspirations: celebration of the way the meat industry adjusted to the challenges of production, processing and global marketing and distribution during lockdown; but after that success has come the persistent difficulty of meeting delivery programmes because of disruption to shipping schedules and access to containers.

The first speaker was Geoff Ross, best known as an entrepreneur with a successful background in developing and selling brands like Ecoya and Trilogy, although his investment in craft brewer Moa was less impressive. Now the owner of Lake Hawea Station, Ross challenged the red (or as he proposed Nutrient Rich) meat sector to attack the largest opportunity since the first refrigerated lamb shipment instead of defending the problem. In his opinion climate change is the biggest event in recorded history and provides New Zealand with a strong tailwind, because it has a massive head start on competing countries with its carbon positive plant growing capability.

His challenge to farming in New Zealand is to become carbon positive and to seize the position as the world’s Climate Positive Farm, capitalising on a groundswell of public opinion in support of regenerative agriculture, of which more in a moment. With the commitment of He Waka Eke Noa for all farms to be able to calculate their carbon balance by the end of 2022, he strongly urges the sector to use the Beef + Lamb calculator to apply farms’ carbon positive balance to their meat and wool production.

This will not only provide the basis for meeting the sector’s commitment to comply with the government’s regulatory objectives, but more importantly will enable it to tell a compelling story to the world’s high value consumers about how the country’s meat is produced.

Mike Lee, CEO of a New York based food innovation company, is currently working with B+LNZ and NZ Winegrowers on the potential for regenerative agriculture, a concept which is gaining popularity among a growing consumer segment, but is proving hard to define. As part of the study, a market scan has been conducted in the USA, UK and Germany showing regen ag is a grassroots movement, which has also been taken up by large corporate brands.

The concept is growing much faster than organics with the producer as the main focal point, although the lack of a certified definition means it is essentially different in each country. The opportunity exists for New Zealand farming to develop a unified producer narrative which will give assurance to consumers. Lee pointed to the importance of ‘terroir’ as a means of connecting the taste experience to the characteristics of the soil, a concept already well known in wine production and marketing.

There are two distinctive aspects to the challenge: one is for B+LNZ to lead a sufficiently meaningful proportion of sheep and beef producers to the belief they can achieve their farming outcomes while meeting an agreed definition of regenerative farming; the other is to ensure the definition of regenerative agriculture being applied is meaningful and acceptable to the consumers they wish to attract. Although Lee’s study produced anecdotal evidence some consumers would pay more for food produced regeneratively, this conclusion is far from guaranteed.

MPI’s Director of International Policy, Phil Houlding, came at the opportunity from the different angle of food sustainability and identifying how this can help to achieve sustainable development goals. Key elements of MPI’s work, in cooperation with other agencies, are trade and market access, environmental rules and engagement, and primary sector diplomacy. The promotion of free trade remains a major focus because the removal of trade barriers contributes to higher global prices and market returns for all, not just income gain from lower tariffs.

He referred to New Zealand’s approach to the United Nations Food Systems Summit later this year which is to promote the importance of agricultural efficiency in improving environmental performance using evidence based data; he also pointed to our ability to help other countries develop the methodology to measure their food capability, noting 140 countries do not already perform this measurement. Knowing the numbers is a big advantage to New Zealand, as according to Houlding the sustainability challenge is not just about what you know, but what you can prove and who is willing to be convinced by it.

At the Conference there was a definite sense of the world having changed for ever as a result of Covid, climate change and the new generation of consumers. Julia Jones, NZX’s Head of Insight, emphasised the importance of creating a digital connection with overseas customers, being prepared to disrupt and be challenged by outside ideas, and planning a whole range of scenarios, none of which would necessarily come to fruition. But this type of planning process would keep organisations far more agile than the traditional three, five and ten year strategic plans.

It was a stimulating conference, although it would have been good to see more farmers there, as they represent the largest number of businesses affected by the changing environment, but hopefully they will be willing to listen to their representative organisations like B+LNZ.


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20 Comments

From what I can see regen ag is basically mining nutrients from the soil as was happening before the advent of fertilizer. Many farms have had many years of fert input so can sustain production for so long but at some stage the fertility will runout. Hill country is particularly prone. The biggest issue I see is the finite Phosphate reserves. Without this nutrient being affordable it is game over like what happened in the early 1900's before fert and people simply walked off the land once the initial fertility ran out.

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Full-circle nutrient recycling is the only long-term answer.

Herbert Girardet was appointed 'Thinker in Chief' by Mike Wrann in SA. The result was worth studying, and his book is well worth the download/read:
https://www.amazon.com/Creating-Sustainable-Cities-Schumacher-Briefings…

This is where we have to go. Outfalls-to-paddock, when you get down to it. And if we step back and include Systems, we may find agriculture changing out of all recognition.

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To make it "full", we people, once we expire, need to buried in the top 300mm of farms.

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Soylent Green....

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When you say "outfalls" pdk do you mean sewage?
They do/did that in some places in England but because it's mixed in with industrial waste as well the paddocks end up full of heavy metals which make their way in to leafy veg, so you might need to be careful what you grow there (I often wonder whether anyone has ever tested the compost you buy at the hardware stores for heavy metals and persistant organics)

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Yep, that's one of the problems. Has to be separated prior, which takes energy. Cities and sustainability don't really belong in the same sentence - but there isn't enough hinterland to all migrate back to, either. Wicked problem.

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One would hope that the Regenerative Agriculture accounts for all external sources of nutrients, includes analysis of composition and assures no human rights violations, just like food for humans.

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I agree PDK, recycling is needed otherwise all nutrients will end up on the bottom of the ocean. Very difficult to achieve as out lined in others comments.

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Not quite,
We export food full of nutrients, but of course we then have to import replacements, the age old problem
Unless we can find domestic resources of key elements such as phosphorus, cobalt, boron, molybdenum.
Alternatively guess we could strip mine the kelp….or the ocean floor.

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The ocean floor - are the Chatham Rise phosphates still there? But then the fossil fuel used to mine, process and apply said phosphates would have a greater environmental cost than the benefits that would accrue from its use. A wicked problem indeed.

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Can a full nutrient cycle ever be achieved? I mean that requires full return of humanure to food producing land. Unfortunately we have turned this essential resource into toxic waste, full of blood thinners, oestrogens, heavy metals and god knows what else.

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There are some plants and microbes that can deal with such things .(not so sure about hormones).A species of willow can absorb and process petroluem and heavy metal products .
You would not compost human waste directly onto food growing soil. you would use it to feed a green crop, or something like the willow , to give it one more step of seperation , then compost that crop to put on the gardens / pasture. Or sue it on all these new forests .
Levin's sewage system was sprayed onto a pine forest in the 1980's , i dont know if that practice is acceptable today .

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There is nothing intrinsically wrong with using human waste directly on crops. Urine especially is a great source of N. I use cow, sheep and chook manure on my own garden and orchard. Its when waste is collected en mass, in a great festering heap, with all the ingredients of industrial society added, it becomes a problem.

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urine is fine(usually sterile) , but feces either needs a guaranteed high temperature for a set time to kill pathagens . Spreading on your own garden is a different story , of course.

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I think our attitude to dumping shit in water is changing , and the practice will eventually cease. It really is a waste of nutrients on one hand , and a lazy way of disposing of nasties on the other. It was based on the premise the oceans have an unlimited ability to absorb nasties , which we now know is not so .
We are lucky to have a low population , both in New Zealand , and the surrounding pacific.
Farmers are up first , because the focus is on cleaning rivers from the headwaters , working down to the sea. Once we get to the cities , then watch the costs soar. Not that the cities and industry should not be starting now.

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I saw on tv that the city of Reading in England takes its water supply from the River Thames, cleans it and uses it for drinking, washing etc, then cleans the wastewater before discharging it back into the Thames.

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I wonder what happens to the residue cleaned from the water?

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Landfill usually.

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Dosn't matter how you look at it everything we eat anywhere on the planet, regardless where it is grown, all gets shat out and ends up in the waste water system and ultimately into the ocean. Drinking water is another matter entirely. The question here is the nutrient cycle if that is even possible. Regen Ag is a good marketing ploy but in reality it is only a hopeful illusion.

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