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NZ’s Special Agricultural Trade Envoy in Ottawa

28th February 2012 by , | No Comments

Last week we were fortunate enough to have as a visitor to Ottawa, New Zealand’s Special Agricultural Trade Envoy, Alistair Polson. 

Alistair is one of a number of farmers who have held the title and brings to it experience as an award-winning sheep and beef farmer, as well as a veteran industry representative and entrepreneur.  I attended a number of calls with Alistair, including a joint presentation to the Conference Board with me providing some context on the Canada-New Zealand bilateral relationship before Alistair’s presentation on New Zealand’s perspective on global agricultural trade.  But as he spent most of his time with Sarah (a previous guest-blogger) I’ve asked her to jot down a few thoughts:

If it weren’t for yer gumboots where would yer be?

The government-appointed role of Special Agricultural Trade Envoy was established in 1999 with the objectives of promoting and defending New Zealand’s agricultural trading interests overseas, with a particular focus on farmers talking to other farmers, which is just as well because – as I discovered – farmers really like talking to other farmers, and visiting each others farms (if possible). A big part of the job, which Alistair is very adept at, is to show, drawing on New Zealand’s experience, how farming can be successful without government support.  The other part is to explain why freeing up global agricultural trade is so important to us.

As Alistair explained, New Zealand has a useful story to tell as a country that removed its system of agricultural subsidies (New Zealand now has the lowest producer support estimate in the OECD at 1%) and went on to become the world’s largest dairy product and sheep meat exporter, and the world’s 12th-largest agricultural exporter by value, despite being further from markets than any other major agricultural producer. The transformation wrought by exposure to world markets has been profound, in the past 25 years agricultural productivity has increased by 3.3 percent annually and we now export to every corner of the globe. As Alistair put it, “earning a living depends on meeting customers’ expectations of price and quality, not on government support – and farmers don’t want to go back.”

That a country just over a quarter of the size of Ontario with a population the size of Toronto can be the world’s largest dairy exporter is a great story of Kiwi entrepreneurship and hard work, but it’s a sorry tale for agricultural trade liberalisation. Due to high trade barriers for dairy products, just 7% percent of dairy products are traded globally. And there is nothing special about dairy; other agricultural exports like sugar and rice also face acute market access barriers. Agriculture is unfinished business as far as international trade rules are concerned, and with the WTO Doha negotiations currently on ice, New Zealand will continue to pursue agricultural trade liberalisation in all its free trade agreements, including in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But, as Alistair noted, this is not just in New Zealand’s interests. Canada is a real agricultural trade heavyweight and a strong, fair and open international trading system for agriculture is very much in Canada’s interests. Canada is the world’s 4th largest agri-food exporter, agriculture and food account for almost 10% of Canada’s total merchandise trade, and 9 out of every 10 farms is dependent on export markets.

The title of this blog refers to an iconic New Zealand song originally performed in the 1970s by comedian John Clarke as his “traditional Kiwi bloke” alter-ego Fred Dagg (http://folksong.org.nz/gumboot/index.html). It’s a comedic song, but within it hides a core of truth about agriculture in New Zealand that still resonates. Agriculture is how New Zealand earns its crust – together agriculture, horticulture and forestry make up around 12% of our GDP, 64% of our merchandise export earnings and is responsible for just under 12% of employment. Perhaps more than any other developed country, our economy, people and environment depend on the success of our land-based industries. That explains why a strong rules-based system for international agricultural trade is so important to us.

It should be equally important to Canada.

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