The whey contamination scare has once again put the focus on New Zealand’s reliance on agriculture.
Shaun Hendy co-authored a soon to be released book with the late Sir Paul Callaghan entitled Get Off the Grass.
. . . In Get Off the Grass, Sir Paul and I investigate why New Zealanders work harder and earn less than most other people in the developed world. In Sir Paul’s previous book, Wool to Weta, this was framed as a choice: we choose to be poor because of the types of industries that we prioritise, such as farming and tourism, earn us relatively little per hour worked. In Get Off the Grass, we use ideas from economic geography and the study of complex systems to investigate why it has been so hard to innovate our way out of these low productivity industries. . .
With a title like Get Off the Grass, it won’t surprise you that we argue that New Zealand can and should look to do an awful lot more than just agriculture. Some of the points we make in the book are:
- There is a deep flaw in our reliance on the 100% Pure brand. We need the edge our clean, green brand gives us to sell our agricultural commodities at good prices, yet the production of these commodities actually damages the environment. See this piece I wrote for Unlimited magazine last year.
- Economic diversity is crucial for long-term economic stability, and this in turn is crucial for growth. The fluctuations in our dollar caused by the contamination of one of our major exports illustrates why. The volatility caused by such crises in turn hurts other export sectors, making it even harder to get off the grass.
- Diversity is regarded as a crucial ingredient for innovation, so our strong focus on agricultural research actually makes us less innovative as a nation, whether in agriculture or otherwise. Physics and chemistry have contributed an awful lot to agriculture, but agricultural science has not returned the favour.
- Specialisation in a single industry is just not a good long term strategy. No industry stays on top forever, and if your favoured industry becomes too important to fail, it will prevent you moving into other industries before it’s too late. . .
I don’t agree with all those points.
We are very innovative in agriculture and that has led to other successful innovations which earn export income, electric fences for example.
Thanks to our climate and soils we are very good at growing grass and turning it into protein.
We shouldn’t turn our backs on that natural advantage.
While the world wants our food we have a very good reason to keep on the grass – but that shouldn’t be stopping us diversifying into other exports.
There’s no need to get off the grass but we should be looking at how we can do grass plus develop other export industries.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other, it can and should be both.