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What does your job look like without agriculture?

By Anna Campbell

An interesting article came across my desk recently about the Danish economy. Apparently, much like our own economy, the Danes live off agriculture, you could say “they live off the pig’s back”. Danes, like New Zealanders, are out-populated by livestock, there are 5.6M Danes and 30M pigs, whilst 20% of their national income is derived from agricultural exports (based on 2011 figures). So this got me thinking about New Zealand and our appreciation (or lack of appreciation) for the “backbone” of our economy: agriculture.

First of all, let’s deal with the numbers and what they really mean

Agricultural exports make up a massive 50% of our export earnings and 12% of our total GDP. I have heard these figures before, but I don’t think that it really sinks in just what that means. So I decided to work out what our standard of living would look like without agriculture. Of course this was never going to be as simple as I thought and after some conversation with a couple of our wonderful University economists (thanks Drs Alan King and Paul Hansen), I think I can now put this in everyday terms.

If we use the analogy of a human body, then losing agriculture to New Zealand’s economy would be akin to a major amputation of a limb, we will survive, limping along, but our lives would be very different. In understanding what a loss of 12% off our GDP would mean to your household income it is not as simple as imagining yourself with 12% less salary, in fact the effect would be far greater than 12%. This is due to something described as the “multiplier effect” in that most people’s jobs in our country are directly or indirectly influenced by agriculture. The best question to ask is how safe would your job be if ag-exports ceased? At a personal level, both mine and my husband’s jobs would be dead ducks. This would then affect what we bought and what activities our children were involved in-sorry kids, no new cricket bats. This is known as the “trickle-down effect” and the magnitude of the ag trickle-down in New Zealand would be considerable. 

So back to the Danes...

What struck me as interesting about their situation is that through urbanisation there is a distance between those that work at the coal-face of agriculture and their city-dwellers. In my view, this is similar in New Zealand where there is almost a “cultural cringe” amongst urbanites when they speak of our agricultural industry. Negative environmental and welfare stories far outweigh the stories of productivity and innovation happening on-farm. It is understandable that parts of ag just aren’t sexy, when did you last see our prime minister open an edible offal company versus an ICT company? Yet I suspect the former considerably outweighs the latter in export value. What is interesting about the Danes though is that despite the urban distance, they have turned a corner and through investment and the development of food clusters, they are excelling in innovation related to food: “entrepreneurs see the future in meat and milk”.

A growing industry

New Zealand and Otago, right now, are in an enviable global position. Food is a growing industry: demand is set to rise by 60% by 2030. We need to celebrate what our farmers do, day in and day out, producing high quality food under world-recognised traceability and food safety systems. We also need to get over our discomfort of earning money from offal and get excited about it- how do we turn nutrient-packed livers into elite and desirable health foods? 

Turning the corner in how we view agriculture and celebrating agricultural innovation will have its own impressive trickle down effects. Imagine New Zealand being a place where we attracted our best and brightest school-leavers into agriculture and food innovation? Imagine Dunedin being a “food-innovation centre” growing from our strong on-farm base and utilising our ag-companies in Otago and Southland and our educational institutes. Imagine what doubling our food export value by 2025 (our Government’s current target) would do for our combined future?

Yes, we will have ICT successes, but our greatest ICT successes are likely to be related to food production, much like the Danes. Let’s own it, spread the word- especially amongst the school leavers, and get innovative.