The mountain we need to climb. Designing agricultural policy for a future in farming.

Executive summary

“People love innovation almost as much as they hate change.” Jack A Bobo

This report primarily addresses those in leadership, and to a lesser extent agricultural policy makers and others with an interest in how we move forward in delivering better outcomes for those on the land and the land itself. The findings and conclusions are also relevant for the wider agricultural sector as the issues at the heart of our policy landscape are not confined to Government.

New Zealand has a legacy of leadership, pioneering and innovating in the face of challenges, and culturally we are often eager to ‘lead the way’. However, we are less accomplished at reviewing ourselves objectively and understanding what about our leadership or innovations have proven effective, or where we have gone astray. This means that our perspective regarding what we do, how, and why we do it sometimes lacks clarity.

This report hopes to bring into focus some of what we must clearly comprehend about ourselves and our operating environment if we are to navigate agricultural policy more successfully going forward.

New Zealand is a unique nation amongst food producers globally, operating almost entirely without subsidies and relying on volatile variables (weather, input costs, international markets, currency movements) to underpin the national economy. We have relied heavily on market forces to guide investment decisions since deregulation in the 1980’s and this responsiveness has fostered a vigorous drive for efficiency and profitability within the primary sector, to the extent that we lead the world by many measures of primary sector success.

This leadership has not come without cost and increasingly regulators are seeking to address public concerns regarding the unintended impacts of our highly responsive primary sector, in light of the markets failure to do so. However the New Zealand approach has been to add cost via regulation, essentially undermining the on farm efficiencies which enabled the primary sector to operate in the absence of subsidies in the first place. Naturally, in the face of perceived threats to their viability, there is strong farmer resistance to such a shift.

At the heart of this issue lies the conflict between what society desires in theory and what it desires in practice. The first is advocated publicly via public narratives, media, social networks, advocacy, activism and electoral choices, while the second is advocated privately via the everyday actions of individuals making purchasing decisions on a daily basis.

Policy makers in democratic systems are bound to respond to what people say, while producers in New Zealand (more so than anywhere else) have little choice but to respond to what people pay.

This difference is currently breeding cynicism in primary producers all around the world as many grapple with how to produce food more sustainably, while facing strong resistance to higher prices and receiving immaterial incentives from corporate customers who continue to compete in the retail environment primarily on the basis of constraining price.

In Europe, subsidies are increasingly masking this discrepancy, applying farm and environmental payments for those attributes which fall into the ‘intention gap’ between what consumers want and what they will pay for. New Zealand is largely

alone in continuing to lean on regulation to deliver ‘good’ in the absence of market rewards, and this represents a massive challenge, and perhaps an opportunity.

The opportunity lies in designing a future where policy is created in service of those who will use it, working with, rather than against those whose hands will bring it to fruition. We need to better acknowledge that our growers, unlike others, are being asked to raise the bar under their own steam, from pre-existing resources.

This shift in narrative, and a determined effort to develop the best stable of agricultural policies in the world could deliver something that no one else in the world has done: Deliver world class food with increasingly higher environmental integrity from unsubsidised food systems.

New Zealand is small and innovative enough to achieve this, but it requires a shift in mindset and a commitment to delivering policy which prioritises people. This report highlights the potentially powerful possibilities that emerge if people are put at the heart of policy making, and if organisations, tools and values are designed to facilitate this.

Distinguishing between real insights with regards to what should change within the farmed environment and how change can happen, can only be achieved by investing heavily in the capacity of policy makers and the primary sector to understand one another again. This requires investment in drawing closer together, developing common language and deeper relationships based on trust and a shared long-term view of the future.

The New Zealand public service is not currently oriented in a way that would enable policy making which is capable of grappling with the myriad of complex issues across multiple portfolios with deeply social and cultural implications. However, the need for such capacity has been recognised by the previous Government and enabling features given legitimacy via the Public Service Act 2020.

Whether or not the promise of this new direction comes to fruition will depend on the final point in this report, that of political will, and its role in defending the space for change. For those in leadership, this is your batten to take up and carry. Create and then defend the space for a system wide shift from a public service which prioritises processes and outputs, toward one that prioritises people and outcomes.

The evidence is there, the benefits outweigh the risks.