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Planets aligning for our sheep industry

By Anna Campbell

Demand for New Zealand lamb in Europe increases over Easter as friends and family get together and celebrate with a lamb feast. So in keeping with this Easter lamb theme I cooked up a lamb storm on Easter Sunday for my family. I was greeted with “wow dinner smells good” from the kids as they came in from a neighbourhood game of “team-tag” and sure enough...it was good, sensational in fact, if I do say so myself. So good that I am still thinking about it, and pontificating, as I frequently do, about the place of New Zealand lamb in the world.

Most of my work at AbacusBio, is targeted at how we can improve value for New Zealand lamb, whether that be on-farm or in the market. When I get drawn into other industries- dairy, honey, kiwifruit- it’s like I am on the end of a piece of elastic, I bounce back. Meat is not a sexy industry to be in, so what keeps me here?

Leading the New Zealand red meat industry

The red meat industry has struggled for consistent profitability over the past decade. As such, there is a belief that the industry “lacks leadership”. This is not my experience. I work with great people in the industry: thinkers, doers, strategists and innovators. Yes, there are some muppets, but I don’t think our share is any greater than any other industry and the good definitely outweigh the bad. Too often, we look for a silver bullet in the form of a charismatic leader to lead us out of challenging times. In reality though, effective leaders do so in a quiet and thorough manner, they hold a vision and quietly work towards that vision, they put foundations in place and build on those foundations, without fanfare or glory. Those are the types of people we need and we do have in our industry.

Currently, the meat industry has too many small players; some of those are being consolidated and are targets for international ownership. However, when I look at our “big four” meat companies, I am heartened to say that three of them are working innovatively and strategically in the market and on-farm to create more value. They are making progress too: prices for New Zealand lamb have grown steadily over the past decade. Most industries would be proud of such growth but unfortunately the growth has not been enough to compete with dairy and the resultant land-use change.

The road ahead: market demand, opportunities and innovation

Based on market signals, I am optimistic that the red meat industry will compete again. The pace and shift in market demand for red meat will allow our meat companies to rise above issues of industry fragmentation, consolidate where practical and create exciting market paths. Global demand for meat is predicted to grow enormously, a recent report from the Australian Government, What China wants: Analysis of China's food demand to 2050, predicts that China imports for lamb and goat products will grow by 1844%, beef by 985% and dairy by 165% by 2050. Within China alone, there are multiple markets and many opportunities to add value. That is all without even looking at opportunities in the rest of Asia and South America. 

Where is the lamb going to come from to satisfy demand and what will the New Zealand meat industry look like in 2050 as a result? I would love to see us selling New Zealand meat and associated products only to very high-end consumers and this is an approach we are working hard to achieve. I would also love New Zealanders in the sheep industry to think about how we can be part of international production chains, such as Fonterra and Zespri are developing. New Zealand agriculturalists are revered internationally for their know-how throughout the production chain, demand for lamb is greater than we can ever begin to supply- so how can we work together to capitalise on international production systems? 

Dairying in New Zealand is an attractive proposition, the numbers stack up and international demand is good. However, there will be checks on that growth in future as environmental regulations kick-in and as developing countries become more self-sufficient. Economically we need another strong industry and the planets are beginning to align for the sheep industry. Market demand, product opportunities and innovation on-farm bode well. The foundations are laid, now we need to grow confidence and work hard to position ourselves to reap the rewards.