PM Helen Clark has been visiting Hawke’s Bay the past day or so. At the suggestion of MP Rick Barker, she agreed to an interview with BayBuzz. Actually, we videotaped the interview, which we will post tomorrow as “Helen Clark – Part II.”

Before the interview, I listened to remarks Ms. Clark made to members of Food Hawke’s Bay. Given the audience, she focused on the challenges and opportunities facing the NZ agriculture and food sectors. The following impressions are based on both her talk and my interview.

As the PM sees it, the agricultural products NZ hopes to sell the world must take a “quantum leap forward in value” … this country simply cannot compete in terms of volume or commodity products with other larger food producers, from South Africa to Argentina.

The “quantum leap in value” requires NZ — both public and private sectors — to deliver in three fundamental ways:

Innovation — from new added-value food products to technology breakthroughs that improve productivity off the land, reduce environmental impacts, lower life-cycle costs. Ms. Clark regards innovation as a historic enabler of Kiwi farming and food production. She touted Labour’s Fast Forward initiative to significantly boost research in the farming/food sector … an initiative John Key calls a “gimmick.” (More on that tomorrow.)

Sustainability — as Ms. Clark sees it, an absolute prerequisite for selling Kiwi products, especially food products, in Europe and North America, where consumers more and more are basing purchase decisions on ethical and environmental integrity considerations. The “clean, green” NZ brand is essential to foreign commerce … and at the same time more subject to skeptical scrutiny. In other words, it has to be true! (More tomorrow … e.g., dairy farming!)

Training — Ms. Clark points out that we need to ensure NZ in fact has the talent base in all areas and aspects of the sector to deliver the required innovation. Skeptics say that a “bottleneck” for the Fast Forward initiative will be a shortage of scientists trained in the “nuts & bolts” of food science, soil chemistry etc. (More in the video interview.)

This was my first direct exposure to Helen Clark. I thought she delivered her case to the Food Hawke’s Bay group with confidence, full command of the subject, and optimism about overcoming the challenges.

A brief “debate” occurred on the issue of “country of origin” food labeling, with several in the audience pushing it as a requisite of consumer choice … whether Kiwis wanting to know where their food was sourced, or foreign consumers being alerted to the “NZ brand.” PM Clark resisted the idea, saying it would work against Kiwi products marketed abroad. The implication seemed to be that Kiwi products might be better sold, at least abroad, by stealth.

I’m certainly not a food exporter, but I know a fair amount about marketing. And I think Ms. Clark can’t have it both ways.

I take as spot on her belief, noted above, that the “clean, green” Kiwi brand is crucial to the “unique selling proposition” of Kiwi food products abroad. Given that, those food products should be screaming their Kiwi origin. The same holds true in our home market, where many consumers want to choose Kiwi-produced foods. Indeed, if I were NZ Brand Czar, I would insist that every Kiwi food product sold domestically or abroad display a common “made in NZ” label or trademark. In addition to telling the truth, successful branding requires consistency, ubiquity and frequency.

Anyway … hopefully enough to whet your appetite for now … try the main course tomorrow in video!

Tom

[Obviously PM Clark doesn’t share the trepidation of Hastings Councillors, a majority of whom refused BayBuzz permission to videotape the sports park debate on the grounds that we might “mis-use” the video. What? As in, put them on the record for all to see? What a difference personal confidence, conviction about what you’re saying, and a belief in transparency makes in an elected official! Score one for Helen Clark.]

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