The primary industry’s time to shine

Since the emergence of COVID-19 from Wuhan, China in December 2019, New Zealand and many other countries across the world have taken unprecedented and drastic measures to quarantine their populations to control the spread of the virus.

Within New Zealand the tourism industry and other businesses that rely on the free flow of people and goods have been severely hit by travel restrictions imposed on the public in a global effort to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, which has had a devastating impact on many individual's livelihoods.

In many ways farming enterprises have been fortunate to be able to continue operating within the confines of controlled on-farm environments, while still being able to send their products for further processing, albeit at reduced capacity levels as processing facilities adapt their workplaces to maintain safe distancing requirements and deal with logistical disruptions in moving product.

Challenges still do exist on-farm, with many farmers having to manage tight feed supplies on the back of dry weather conditions in many regions across the country. Despite these extreme conditions, farmers and rural professionals have been able to get on with most of the tasks at hand, which unfortunately has not been the case for people and businesses involved with the tourism and travel industries.

To understand the gravity of international travel restrictions to the tourism industry, the number of international visitors that entered New Zealand averaged around 321,000 per month for the year ending February 2020. [1] However, since the start of the lockdown on 26 March the number of international visitors passing through our borders has almost been non-existent.

The associated impact to the New Zealand economy will be significant. In the year ending March 2019, the export value from the tourism industry was worth $17.2 billion. [2] To provide context this closely rivals New Zealand's largest export sector - the dairy industry - at $18.1 billion (YE June 2019). [3]

Unfortunately, the prospect of a speedy recovery within the tourism sector looks grim as countries around the world look to maintain tight controls on the movement of people to minimise the transmission risks of COVID-19. All of which is occurring in the backdrop of a deteriorating global economy.

With the tourism industry in the doldrums and a relatively small manufacturing base, New Zealand's tradable export sector is now dominated by the primary industry, with export revenues from the primary sectors forecast to be worth just over $46 billion by the year ending June 2020.

As New Zealand looks at what can be done to rebuild the economy from the turmoil created by COVID-19, the primary industry also needs to consider what role it plays in helping revitalise and grow the economy.

In many ways we have a golden opportunity to engage and reset the discussion with urban New Zealand on how we can innovate and grow the economy sustainably. But this will require different types of discussions whereby we are more open in understanding and respectfully discussing each other's views in working through areas of concern, including: improving water quality, demonstrating high quality animal care and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, among others. This could be an uncomfortable experience for the individuals and organisations involved and potentially require the parties to concede ground on their respective positions around certain issues.

This will require us to deeply reflect on how we wish to work and engage with each other in this new world, as it would be far too easy for inflated egos and vested interests to take advantage of the primary industry's current position to push certain agendas. But, as experienced by the tourism industry, we should also be very mindful of how quickly the tables can turn within our industry when dealing with biological systems and biosecurity threats, with PSA in kiwifruit and Mycoplasma bovis being cases in point.

Instead the opportunity exists for this country's primary industry to use its new-found status to respectfully show and demonstrate leadership in reaching out and engaging with urban New Zealand as the time is right for the primary industry to shine.

[2]StatsNZ Tourism satellite account: 2019 ( link)
[3] MPI's Situation and Outlook for Primary Industries, March 2020 ( link)