OPINION: Getting closer to consumers

Malcolm BaileyBy Malcolm Bailey

“Transforming Food Producers for the Future” is the theme of New Zealand AgriFood Week, March 12-17, the country’s only week-long event dedicated to the future of agrifood, agritech, and farming industry opportunities.

As farms and food producers evolve, getting closer to consumers and understanding their buying behaviour is at the core of many decisions. And if it’s not, it should be.

We can’t stand still because society and consumer perceptions and expectations are shifting considerably.

Our farms are shop windows and farmers and growers are front and centre in those windows. Our fellow New Zealanders are clearly wanting farmers to look after land and water resources in a sustainable way – and animal welfare is also very important to them.

Top end consumers here and offshore want to buy food that comes from production systems they trust. This is good news because New Zealand already has world leading food safety systems and respected farm production systems.

Farmers can expect the level of scrutiny of what we do to increase as consumers’ expectations of how food is produced evolve against the backdrop of global concerns about climate change and sustainability. Rather than feel threatened by this we have to see this as an opportunity and work together.

Why is this an opportunity? Compared to other food producing nations, New Zealand is in a strong position because our farming systems already have a comparatively low environmental footprint based on natural grass-fed systems with free range animals.

Further, we want to improve what we are doing in terms of lowering the negative impact on water quality and we are funding further research into new products and systems that is often world-leading.

But of course, there will always be new challenges: synthetic meat and milk being some of the most recent. Producers of these products want to sell consumers who do not like the concept of farmed animals that utilise more land and water per kilogram of meat and milk output. Their ultimate goal is to offer these products at a lower price than existing products. Alongside a new challenge like this, lies new opportunities if we are open-minded and are prepared to diversify. Currently the main source of protein for these synthetic products is peas. Can New Zealand successfully develop a new industry based on such technology?

Getting closer to our consumers also includes opportunities to tap into the farm tourism market. Many foreign tourists would like to visit working farms as part of their visitor experience in New Zealand but find limited opportunities to do this. There is untapped potential to integrate farm visits with visits to food processing facilities and local restaurants to show case our products. Tourists who have enjoyed these experiences become great advocates for New Zealand’s food and wine back in their home countries.

Food production systems are rapidly developing new technology to utilise resources more efficiently and fill the growing gap of less people available or willing to undertake back-breaking tasks. New Zealand has a lot of entrepreneurial agritech people and businesses who are developing great technology and machines that are in demand around the world.

There is a general view in New Zealand that we should focus on high quality natural food and that this positioning can co-exist with whatever the synthetic producers may do.

To compete successfully we have to segment consumers in the markets where we want to sell and target their needs. Given the high quality of our food products this means targeting wealthier and more knowledgeable consumers who will pay a premium for New Zealands best. This is not new – many New Zealand companies are doing this already.

This means farmers must focus on what the consumers of our products want and look for ways to improve the quality of what leaves the farm gate. The fundamentals of farming are evolving, but what consumers are demanding seems to be evolving faster. We need to be in a position to respond to this.

This requires deeper integration and connection with processors and marketers of the products, which is a key focus at a number of New Zealand AgriFood Week events.

This piece has also appeared on Farmers Weekly.

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