Too many farming rules? Perhaps regulations are there for a reason

If overseas consumers of New Zealand food and beverages decide its claimed sustainability, naturalness, and desirability is exaggerated, the consequences will be severe, writes Jim McAloon.

Capsicums and cabbages

Comment: The National Party has just released its agriculture policy, promising to reduce regulation of farming and going so far as to claim the Labour government has been undertaking a ‘war on farmers’. Given the importance of primary sector exports to the New Zealand economy, there is a risk that short-term emotional satisfaction will threaten long-term futures.

Exporting food and other primary commodities has been a feature of this country’s economy for over 200 years. After 1840 the expropriation of land and resources meant that thriving Māori economies were rapidly displaced by white settlers. For a century the settler economy relied on exporting pastoral commodities—wool, meat, and dairy. Even in 2022, dairy and meat made up 42 percent of merchandise exports. Seafood, wine, and fruit added up to 11 percent.

After 1882, refrigerated shipping—almost entirely to Britain—revolutionised meat and dairy exporting, but consumers had to be persuaded that refrigerated foods were safe and palatable, and that New Zealand produce was superior to that of competitors.

Strict quality control meant a significant increase in state regulation and inspection. Despite the objections of some farmers, farm-processed dairy exports were prohibited from the 1890s; factory production was mandatory. The ‘New Zealand’ brand was intended to convey not only consistent quality, but also the colony’s close links with Britain. Thus, New Zealand meat was often described as ‘British from New Zealand’ and even the grasses on which the animals fed were ‘English’.

Advertising emphasised what we would now call ‘clean and green’ imagery. For decades, dairy and meat marketing relied on images of peaceful rural landscapes—the messier aspects of meat processing were carefully skated over. The whole purpose was to persuade middle-class British consumers that New Zealand produce was natural and of the highest quality, and that these considerations overrode the claims of British or other nearer producers.

From the 1960s, New Zealand’s primary sector changed markedly. Markets diversified, and so, more slowly, did commodities. The classic trinity of meat, wool, and dairy was complemented by forest products, seafood, wine, and an increasing range of horticultural products, notably kiwifruit. By 2000, a distinctively ‘New Zealand’ brand was increasingly evident across the range of food and beverages.

Where the public rhetoric often remained one of ‘feeding the world’—the traditional British market had been the budget-conscious middle-class—the pitch was now increasingly to better-off consumers across the globe. As a 2011 meat industry report noted, there was growing concern among this target group about climate change, animal welfare, food safety, and the health risks from excessive consumption of red meat.

Marketing, therefore, would tell ‘the New Zealand story’—a story that highlighted to an even greater degree images of New Zealand as an unspoilt natural paradise. From 2020, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise emphasised “New Zealand's young, nutrient-rich soil, lush pastures, temperate climate and unspoiled coastlines … cool, clear waters … combine[d] with the care, attention and expertise of our producers” as well as “the special relationship our producers have with the natural world”. The Garden of Eden itself could not have competed.

Additionally, and whereas traditional marketing in Britain portrayed New Zealand as a white-settler country, now Māori imagery and language were to be leveraged as marketing advantages. Manaakitanga was associated with care and hospitality; kaitiakitanga with sustainability; relationship to the land and sea with taiao.

Meat was particularly threatened, as the advantages of plant-based diets were increasingly advocated. New Zealand meat, then, had to be marketed as a nutritious, high-quality, natural food. ‘Naturalness’ and animal welfare were shown as the result of all-year pasture grazing, as opposed to wintering in barns, and dieticians were enlisted to lend their support. Extensive claims were made, too, about farmers’ efforts to preserve biodiversity and reduce carbon emissions by judicious planting of native and other trees.

Horticulture industries were linked to the natural advantages of climate and soil, and New Zealand wine, similarly, displayed pure and intense flavours. Seafood marketing emphasised the purity of New Zealand waters, as well as Māori connections with the sea (appropriately enough, given the extent of Māori involvement in seafood industries).

These marketing themes all create very substantial expectations. As the head of the Department of Agriculture noted in 1896, reputational damage is easy to incur and very difficult to shake off.

If overseas consumers of New Zealand food and beverage come to the view that the claimed sustainability, naturalness, and desirability of this produce is exaggerated, the consequences will be severe.

There is a warning in a recent United States court decision banning imports of nine inshore New Zealand fish species from fisheries off the west coast of the North Island, on the basis that such fishing is dangerous to the critically endangered Māui dolphin. Perhaps regulations are there for a reason.

This article was originally published on Newsroom.

Jim McAloon is a professor of History at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.