Post TPP: Forgiving but not forgetting New Zealand

(ZimmComm New Media)

Those who oppose agricultural subsidies have long held New Zealand out as the ultimate success story. According to their line of reasoning, if the Kiwis can farm without subsidies, so can we.

In fact, before and during the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, New Zealand’s iconic status with its admirers was so elevated that to some, it was getting a little out of hand…and not just in our closely-studied country, which was under the anti-subsidy microscope perhaps more than any other, because of our supply management system.

Owen takes the podium at the 15 IFAJ meeting. (ZimmComm New Media)

Owen takes the podium at the 15 IFAJ meeting in New Zealand. (ZimmComm New Media)

Indeed, during introductions at a leadership training program I helped deliver last week in, coincidentally, New Zealand, on behalf of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, the exasperation bubbled to the surface.

“I’m sick of hearing about New Zealand,” said one disgruntled western European participant, with a hint of envy in her voice. “I want people to talk about my country, too!”

Don’t we all? Of course. We’re proud of our nation, of our farmers and of most aspects of our culture, warts and all. We want them held up as exemplary and praised internationally. We don’t want anyone thinking our farmers depend on hand outs from the public purse.

But having caught a brief glimpse of Kiwi culture and agriculture, I suggest we look at New Zealand differently. I say we regard it as a teacher and maybe even an ally, and not as a conniving thief stealing our heritage and our way of life.

Here’s why.

  1. It’s not their fault. New Zealand farmers didn’t ask to have their agricultural subsidies slashed by their government. It was forced on them, and it was a devastatingly tough adjustment. But now, just like supply management is part of our culture, so is no government support part of theirs. On a farm tour near Hamilton, the host city for the leadership program and an ensuing global conference of agricultural journalists, the farm couple was asked if they thought the government should step in and support them if they lost money. They were puzzled at the question…they couldn’t understand why anyone would think the government should shell out for them, if it didn’t do the same for other businesses during a downturn. It’s not part of their culture.
  2. New Zealand is not a disproportionate threat. Indeed, the Kiwis are formidable producers of some products we hold dear, including milk and wine. And, like many others, they would like some access to our domestic market. But looking in the mirror, they don’t see themselves as even David, let alone Goliath. For example, although 95 per cent of their dairy is exported, it represents just three per cent of the world market. So even if they grew appreciably, they’re hardly making a dent. “We’re tiny,” said one presenter, an academic from nearby University of Waikato. “’Little old us’ is not a threat.”
  3. A dairy in New Zealand (ZimmComm New Media)

    A dairy in New Zealand (ZimmComm New Media)

    Born in the USA. One reason New Zealand pushed for us to open our domestic dairy market was to court the USA, which needed some allies to break down our borders and chip away at our supply management system. Said the Kiwis to the USA: we want access to your markets. Said the USA to the Kiwis: OK then, support us in getting access to the Canadian market and others, and we’ll talk. Realistically, the Kiwis know there’s minimal interest in Canada in their dried milk powder, which has traditionally been a big export item for them. And while they’re focussed on increasing the proportion of lucrative liquid milk versus powder that they export, their sights are firmly set on China, not us.

  4. They understand a nation’s need to preserve its culture. Everywhere you look in New Zealand, there’s a nod to the Maori people. Many of the farms, stores, cafes, shops and streets have Maori names. If we were as good as they are at connecting heritage with agriculture, and selling it globally, maybe we’d have more credibility abroad with those who think our supply-managed farmers are only in it for the money.
  5. We share similar challenges and opportunities. Like Canadians, New Zealanders are struggling mightily with lifestyle-related diseases, such as obesity. They can’t get their citizens to eat enough fruit and vegetables, even though they know they should. They’re trying hard to maintain the biosecurity of their nation, while acknowledging they must increasingly open their borders to trade, imports and demographic changes that may put the sanctity of their food system at risk. And they’re trying to figure out how to deal with climate change, especially ozone layer depletion. Sound familiar?

New Zealand farmers have addressed some of their challenges with research. A gleaming example of their research advancements is in livestock productivity. Their national sheep herd is about half of what it used to be, yet it yields a similar amount of meat. Through research, farmers have found more efficient ways to raise animals. The general feeling is they have to rely on research and their own git’er done attitude, because no one else has their backs.

Tim Groser (ZimmComm New Media)

Tim Groser (ZimmComm New Media)

Despite their many virtues though (including their remarkable rugby team), some Kiwis do harbour a bit of an attitude towards Canada. One of them is the country’s seasoned trade negotiator, Tim Groser, who now serves as its trade and climate change minister. He was a central figure in the Uruguay round of global trade talks. His frustration with Canada’s traditional inflexibility over supply management bubbled over when he addressed the 130 agricultural journalists who’d gathered in Hamilton for the federation’s annual congress, held after the leadership training program event.

“Canada is the only country in the world where you get turned back at the border for having milk,” he spat, in obvious reference to the protection we give our supply managed dairy sector.

Whatever, Tim. In the TPP, Canada surrendered a lot less than had originally been expected and demanded by other countries. Maybe that’s stuck in your craw.

But it’s a new era, a time to work together, and a time to move on. We can learn from each other, and should.

Deal?

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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