Mel Poulton – Transformation before transaction: The potential of NZ’s Food and Fibre IP.

Mel Poulton is a farmer first and foremost, running a sheep and beef farm based in the Tararua District. She is also finishing her tenure as New Zealand’s Agriculture Trade Envoy.

Awarded a Nuffield Scholarship in 2014, Mel completed her research on
Capturing Value: Building a sweet spot between trade negotiations, market access and the exports of expertise.

Listen to Mel’s podcast above or read the transcript below.

Bryan GibsonManaging Editor of Farmer’s Weekly.

Welcome to the ‘Ideas that Grow’ podcast. I’m Bryan Gibson, Managing Editor of Farmers Weekly. This week I’m talking to agricultural trade specialist and farmer Mel Poulton. Now, you were a Nuffield scholar in 2014, is that correct?

Mel Poulton 
– 2014 Nuffield Scholar, farmer, Special Agricultural Trade Envoy.

BG: I understand you did your Nuffield Scholar Report on agricultural IP and how to best send it out into the world and also get the best value for it. Can you tell us a little bit about what you found out?

The untapped potential of New Zealand’s agricultural IP.

MP: At the time, as a food producer and somebody who, through our levies was investing in New Zealand science, research, and development for New Zealand farming to give us a competitive edge in the world, it was a concern to me to hear that our IP was being effectively given away in the hope of an FTA for market access. That was how I was certainly interpreting it at the time.

I spent a bit of time traveling to different nations around the world looking at IP trade, market access, and looking at what went well and what didn’t, what could we learn from that, and is this even a good idea for New Zealand? I came back with the conclusion that actually, given who we are and what we do and our constraints, leveraging our IP is a really good strategy for New Zealand.

But I wasn’t convinced that we were doing it well, and I felt like we needed to better value or recognise our IP, value our IP, package our IP, and then be able to leverage value from it, not just by way of the hope of market access through an FTA, because we’ve seen in recent years what can happen with economic coercion and suddenly markets being closed to us. 

Food and Fibre’s intellectual property opportunity.

So, if you end up giving away your IP and then those markets close, what have you got left? Some people might disagree, but I think that’s a relevant concern that New Zealand needs to be really mindful of with regard to its strategy and how it navigates its way in the world and how it leverages its IP.

How do we do it in such a way that those that have invested in that IP can extract value from it, short, medium, and long term, for the good of New Zealand and for the good of our Food and Fibre Sector and our people who have invested.

BG: A better strategy needed on the intellectual property front. Very good. Now, of course, you’re just finishing up a term as the Special Agricultural Trade Envoy (SATE), which means in terms of market access and trade deals and the world food system, you’d have widened your scope on things to more than just intellectual property, to food itself. But are there similar themes at play there as we try and extract value from our agricultural sector.

MP: There’s an enormous amount of opportunity for us to extract value from our IP in ways that we haven’t really considered before, or broadening it a whole lot more than what we do. Thinking about that in the context of a growing global population with a real concern around food security and even more importantly, nutrition security.

Then given the challenges of climate change and the environment and the constraints that’s putting on food production in different parts of the world, I feel confident given what I’ve seen in recent years and the travels that I’ve done both on my Nuffield Scholarship and since then as SATE for New Zealand. I think there’s an enormous opportunity for food production to increase in many parts of the world and especially those countries with developing agriculture. I think there could be small changes made that generate big gains.

Working together with developing agricultural nations for mutual benefit.

Some of these countries with developing agriculture have potential to really lift production. Whereas New Zealand and parts of Europe, for example, feeling more and more constrained as to how much more food production they can actually lift.

The talk is that New Zealand feeds 40 million people. Well, that’s barely feeding one city. Mexico City itself is 40 million people. When you think about the scheme of things in our place in the world, how do we strategically position ourselves to be good in the world and good for the world and continue with a transaction strategy that grows really awesome food and beverages that are highly nutritious and safe?

And also has the integrity behind it with regard to environment and climate and all the other factors around labour and all of the environmental, social, and economic factors that make up the back story to our product.

So we’ve got to be able to have that integrity, but also recognise what our potential for lifting things further for New Zealand. How do we leverage off the strengths that we have as a nation? I think there’s huge potential to be able to work with, learn together with, and build together with, other countries with developing agriculture and leveraging our IP, but not selling it as it is, but leveraging it and adapting it to create something new.

BG: So, it’s far more than just selling a product or an idea and leaving it at that. It is working with the people on the other end of the transaction long term.

A shift to transformation before transaction.

MP: Well, it’s effectively transformation before transaction. If you were to put value on or weighting on it, historically, we’ve had a transaction approach to things. I think there’s still a future for us in that because we grow and sell food to the market – that earns us revenue. I think it’s going to be for the growing needs of New Zealand and the economic growing needs of New Zealand, that we need to figure out how we grow further.

If we’ve got constraints here, then how do we grow together with others being good for the world and good in the world? It’s actually going in there with humility and saying, well, we’ve learned some stuff in our context, we recognise that you’re operating in a different context, we understand you’ve got goals and vision for growth for yourselves, so how can we work together, learning from our IP and a principles approach, to develop something entirely new that could actually help you achieve your goals and help us achieve our goals.

BG: That makes sense. In a finite environment, if one sector has reached their limit, then the only logical place to go is to help others up their production to a level where they can sustain themselves better. 

Further trade ties with India and the role of humility.

MP: I was just in India a short while ago, and they really want us to be investing there. The challenge for New Zealand is that we’ve got stories, we’ve got examples, we’ve got experience investing in other countries. Some of the challenge around that is sometimes we’ve gone in a little bit proud and arrogant, taking a copy and paste approach that hasn’t necessarily worked because you’re operating in a completely different system, a completely different environment, and operating context.

Copy and paste won’t work. It won’t work in many countries because New Zealand is unique in that it is an island nation, small, tight-knit ecosystem, driven by a temperate maritime climate. Just copying and pasting that, there’s very few places in the world you can do that in. That’s why we’ve got to shift our thinking to learning, growing and working together with others to create something entirely new that works in the operating context for them and also works for us.

BG: When you read about the possibilities of doing more trade with India, quite often the first thing you hear is, ‘yeah, but they won’t take our dairy products’. And so deal’s off the table. But I think what you’re saying might be that it’s a bit more nuanced than that, and there are things we can do and we should be doing?

MP: It’s most certainly more nuanced than that. I suppose my take home message from my time in India is – there’s a bunch – the first one is, we really do have to conduct ourselves with humility. I think from those that I engage with in India, they have an allergic reaction to anything remotely arrogant, remotely hinting of a colonialism approach. So, if we even begin to think that we can conduct our way without humility and without deep, deep respect and without a hunger to learn and understand and focus on building relationships, I think we’re going to go nowhere fast.

At the same time, they really do want to grow. They’re grappling with some big challenges, and they’ve got enormous potential to lift by doing small things really well. Talking to the Indian High Commissioner to New Zealand, they really do want us to be investing there.

But again, this is where we’ve got to be thinking about a broader picture than just a single process investment. We’ve actually got to be thinking about how do we grow the whole ecosystem. It’s government to government, industry to industry, farmer to farmer, company to company, people to people.

It’s building all of the ecosystem that is an Indian centric one, or whatever country it might be in the world, something that really works so that whatever investment we do there, it’s going to be successful. But we can be guaranteed it’s not going to be a copy and paste of what we see here in New Zealand. We have to completely shift our thinking altogether.

BG: Now, I mean, our food production ecosystem here in New Zealand is pretty well developed and pretty really well thought of, do you think it’s well placed to meet some of these global challenges?

The value of New Zealand’s Food and Fibre ecosystem and its people.

MP: I have no doubt in my mind that one of our greatest strengths and most undervalued strengths is our ecosystem. By that, I mean all of the folks that are working for New Zealand and in New Zealand companies and the Food and Fibre Sector offshore, including our diplomatic teams. I think we’ve got amazing people in the MFAT and MPI and different government ministries who are working hard for the success of our sector offshore when they’re engaging on the certification and standards and all sorts of things.

We’ve got great people across our sector, good organisations who are absolute experts in doing things that food producers wouldn’t even dream of doing. These people are technically competent, highly skilled, and very effective at their job. Then we have all the folks working in our industry good organisations. You’ve got all the processors, exporters, packers, all exceptionally good at what they do for our sector. Then we’ve got all of our service sector too. No farmer would be able to operate without our service sector.

Then underpinning the whole lot is the science, academia, and research that goes on, that’s delivered the knowledge over the years. We’ve got to keep investing in that science, research, and development because they underpin our success. Then without the food producers themselves who are innovative, creative, solutions focused, businesspeople who are juggling so many variables and navigating their businesses without subsidies, to generate revenue for New Zealand. It’s just an exceptional ecosystem that works together.

The ecosystem is tight, it’s well linked, and relative to similar ecosystems in other countries, New Zealand has something special where we can turn on a dime, we can make decisions, and we can react and can also pre-empt and get ourselves on the front foot to capture opportunities globally as well. I think that was most recently best demonstrated through COVID – just watching how the whole ecosystem came together to navigate it. I’m not saying it was easy. But relative to other countries, New Zealand navigated that well. Our sector navigated it well. There’s a lot we can be proud of about that.

Staying nimble, flexible, and adaptable in a fast-changing world.

BG: And as we know, there are a lot of other shocks around the world now that need to be navigated. So it looks like it’s all shoulders to the wheel again, isn’t it?

MP: It’s all on. What we’ve got to work hard to do is make sure the top two inches of our thinking and our head space is in the right place, make sure we’re positive, we’re constructive, we’re focused on the priorities, we’re rational and logical in the decision making that we’re doing. That we’re taking an integrated systems approach to it, and that we stay nimble, flexible, and adaptable.

Sometimes life happens where a shock is something you can bounce back from. Sometimes it’s a shock where things are forever changed and it’s never going to be the same again. That’s where we’ve got to have plasticity, where we’ve got to be able to be sure of our core values, who we are, what’s important, and be able to reshape ourselves to be optimally placed to navigate what’s in front of us.

A Food and Fibre Sector under the pump.

BG: So, Mel, we’ve been talking about big picture issues for global farming, how does that square with what New Zealand farmers are facing at the moment? How will that work for them?

MP: I suppose when we’re talking about a big picture strategy for New Zealand, we really need to be thinking about how we strategically position ourselves on the global stage in the long term in such a way that we try to deliver short-, medium-, and long-term return back to New Zealand. We’ve also got to acknowledge the fact that right now, there are many farmers, food producers, packers, exporters that are really under the pump big time right now, especially those that have been hit by the weather.

There are folks down in Ashburton and West Coast that are still recovering from the damage that they sustained in recent severe weather events. We’ve got to be mindful that people are under enormous environmental, social, and economic pressure right now.

We need to keep in mind that when we discuss these big picture strategies, we’ve got to be able to look after our people, look after our businesses, look after our environment with the here and now. And how we build the recovery to be able to be best positioned from a market facing point of view, but also just how do we find our place here in New Zealand in this new operating context we’re in at a domestic level, but also at an international level too.

There’s a lot of balls that we’re juggling and it’s complex. I suppose my point really is it’s all fine and well talking about big picture strategy, but we’ve got to look after the people and be acutely aware that we need to be able to get the support, the enabling infrastructure, the enabling business environment, and context to be able to help people recover and stand back up.

Remoulding and reshaping to fit a changed environment.

In some cases, that whole plasticity piece, we do have to remould and reshape, and that might look entirely different to what it was in the past. Because in some cases, with some life events it’s never going to be the same again.

So we need to be giving people scope and space to be able to remould, reshape and create something that is still true to its core values, but looking quite different because it’s in a different operating context – it can’t go back to what it was before.

BG: Thanks for listening to Ideas That Grow, a Rural Leaders Podcast in partnership with Massey and Lincoln Universities, AGAMRDT and Food HQ, this podcast was presented by Farmers Weekly.

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