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Pace of change in Chinese agriculture

By Anna Campbell

We're dotted!

Several months ago, our company was “dotted”. Amy Scott of Alexandra based company Get Dotted came to AbacusBio and spent a day with us helping us recognise our communication styles and the styles of those around us. Now that we are dotted it has been the source of much hilarity in the staff room as we roll our eyes at the behaviours of the other dots. I am proud to say that I am a purple dot- proud despite the endless teasing I receive now that my communication style has been mercilessly taken apart. Purple dots are known for speaking without thinking and for having the odd wild idea. Occasionally (just occasionally) we are guilty of being not so good at finishing.

I write this column while flying from Changchun to Taiyuan with ideas tearing around my brain I am coming to the conclusion that I am far less purple than originally diagnosed. You see in China, I am more of a washed out shade of lavender. Here anything and everything seems possible, even things I would not have dreamed of in my very wildest dreams. The pace of change is such that Chinese business people are operating at a level of growth so extraordinary that it affects the way they think and behave and all those around them.

To give you an example, my travelling companion, the very lovely, Grace Johnstone (who is a red dot, a great foil for me as red dots are known for their no nonsense communication style) and I were in a business meeting with a very wealthy Chinese business man who is interested in investing in food production. The meeting started formally and a bit awkwardly, as most meetings do when an interpreter is involved. Grace and I outlined our position and the businessman asked many pertinent questions in a gentle manner. It felt like hard work as I endeavoured to keep my excited hand waving to a respectable minimum. Then…boom, a light turned on in his head and the meeting continued in a flurry of increasingly expansive ideas, to which our eyes began to pop, we barely uttered a word for the rest of the meeting! For successful business people in China, huge ideas can, and often do, turn into a reality. For New Zealand companies, the challenge is not to keep up, but to choose to be a small part of it and deliver well with the resources we have.

Key takeaways

Some of our trip has involved visiting sheep breeding operations. Currently there are said to be 300 million sheep in China. This number is difficult to accurately gauge because of the vast tracts of land, small herds and nomadic farming styles. That number probably also includes goats. Farming styles are undergoing big changes as much of the extensive grazing land available to the nomadic farmers is restricted because of environmental issues associated with over-grazing. Visiting Inner Mongolia and Shanxi province it is hard to imagine these areas being over-grazed as there seems to be so few animals by comparison to New Zealand. And so to the crux of China’s problems: lack of water, short growing seasons (in the North) and poor soil in grazing areas means grass growth is slow and sensitivities to stocking numbers high. As a result national and local Governments are supporting companies who will move animals into housed systems where food is cut and carried to them.  This style of farming opens up opportunities for Chinese agricultural companies to improve sheep breeds and production practices. Currently, most of the sheep are fat-tailed breeds of Inner Mongolian origin where the sheep has evolved to store considerable fat reserves in their tail to get through the long, snow covered winters.

Changing existing farming practices and structures on a big scale is a mammoth task, but one thing I have learned in China is anything is possible. Huge ideas really can become a reality, intensification, buying in feed and improved genetics and management will see more meat sold in China being of Chinese origin. Is this a threat to our producers? In my view, no: global demand for protein is so steep these production increases will barely make a dent in satisfying that demand. On top of that, everyone I talk to in China loves New Zealand and our food, especially people in the fast moving Tier One cities. Chinese lamb will feed the mass market; we need to feed the wealthy.  

I return from China this week, invigorated from attempting to move at the pace of the Chinese for a short time. I look forward to exposure to bright New Zealand skies which is sure to deepen my washed out lavender persona to its former vibrant purple. Friends and colleagues beware!