Kim Thorp addressed the marketing opportunity available to a GE-Free Hawke’s Bay at the Genetic Modification Forum sponsored by the Hastings District Council in October. Here are his remarks.

Let’s pick off a number of givens first.

It is a given that the world requires an increasing amount of food.

It is also acknowledged that a vast amount of that food to a large chunk of the global population needs to be provided as cheaply as possible and as efficiently as possible in as much bulk as possible.

Cornucopia – food with attitude

It is also acknowledged that increasingly the seeds of those crops and feed that provide those big bulk volumes will probably involve genetic modification.

While I am not sure that this is such a great thing for the planet, I believe it is potentially a very good thing for Hawke’s Bay.

It is also hopefully widely accepted that – with genetic modification or not – New Zealand cannot be a bulk supplier of the world’s food. We don’t have the land, our labour costs are too high, our land is too valuable and we are too far away.

Therefore, perhaps with the exception of powdered milk solids, whether we want to be or not, we are a niche contributor to the world’s food basket.

And because of those cost factors mentioned, again whether we like it or not, we need to be at the premium niche end of the food supply spectrum rather than the bargain basement niche end.

So that is the reality of where we fit. It is not the result of clever marketing or positioning or competitive analysis – it is thrust upon us and now we need to make some decisions.

The premium of natural

If you look at premium food trends globally you can broadly break them into two territories.

At the extreme at one end there is the exquisitely packaged, beautifully labeled and impeccably produced – which goes back centuries to the chocolatiers of Europe, the champagne houses of France and the bento boxes of Japan amongst others. Design and food magazines and websites globally are bulging with recent iterations of this same desire to seduce the eyeballs before the tastebuds.

Then there is another and much faster growing trend that we are becoming increasingly aware of at the premium end. It is almost a rejection of the previous description of over-packaging and over-design. It’s all about simple and honest, back to basics and wholesome.

It’s not about ultra-premium for the sake of it. It is about good value for money with a practical understanding that something grown naturally outdoors in the sunshine can cost a little more.

It is not necessarily about the premium of price – it is about the rapidly increasing premium of natural.
It has seen the global proliferation of chains like Wholefoods in the US, farmers markets globally, a rapidly growing Asian professional middle class looking for purity and authenticity when often surrounded by the opposite, and major supermarket chains like Tesco and Sainsbury demanding authentic, fair trade, chemical-free provenance.

Kim Thorp

To quote Sainsbury’s: “At Sainsbury’s we do not permit the use of genetically modified crops, ingredients, additives or derivatives in our own-brand food, drink, pet food, dietary supplements or floral products.”

Many of our food producers and exporters are carving out new and very exciting and successful relationships in all parts of the world with distributors, wholesalers and retailers who are riding this wave – and naturally a number of those growers and producers who I have talked with and work with are based here in Hawke’s Bay.

And perhaps ‘wave’ isn’t quite the right word, as many are now saying this is no longer a trend. It is becoming embedded for the long term as a significant alternative to the other rapidly growing food trend – processed additive-laden food.

Even the once processed and additive-laden fast food industry is picking up on this and wanting to use and be associated with healthier, more natural alternatives.

So even if New Zealand didn’t exist this trend would be rocketing. We’re hardly leading it and in fact in some ways we’re struggling to catch up with it. Yet surely we’re made for it.

As a country we’re still grappling with exactly how to transfer some of our 100% Pure tourism attributes across to primary sector exports. Everything tells us there’s a vital link – it is just difficult to put it in to words that satisfy all interested parties back here while still creating a compelling story for the customer out there. Another attempt is underway at the moment.

So where does Hawke’s Bay fit?

If it is agreed that a big part of Hawke’s Bay’s future is about food production, then there is enormous sense in building a premium around that. At times that premium might take on the chocolatiers of Paris, but most often I would suggest it will be the premium of sunshine, wonderful soils, open grasslands, naturally ripening fruit and produce grown in an environment that is the envy of many of the vast genetically-modified grain growing square miles of the planet.

So again, it is more about a ‘nature’ premium than simply a price premium – although more often than not, one will follow the other.

So is a GE Free Hawke’s Bay the silver bullet that rides this wave and takes us straight into the hearts and minds and shopping trolleys of the world’s wholesome food buyers?

No. Because there’s no such thing any more.

‘Brands’ can no longer simply say one thing and say it consistently and spend heaps of money on it to beat people over the head with it until it gets in. Even if we could, we haven’t got the money anyway. What we need now is proof of what we mean and the stories to back it up.

Marketing is no longer so much about what we say – it’s about what we do – and how we equip those who like what we do, with the tools to spread the word.

And that’s where I think the GE Free story fits in.

What we do needs to be interesting enough, newsworthy enough, authentic enough and bold enough to attract the ears and eyeballs of those who we want to attract.

At the moment one of the short cut alarm bells that suggests food is not natural, wholesome or healthy is if it has been genetically modified.

To quote Tescos: “Our policy on Genetically Modified (GM) foods is based on what you, our customers, have told us you want. And our research shows that UK customers don’t want GM foods in our stores.”

Hawke’s Bay’s food isn’t genetically modified. We just don’t say so. So why wouldn’t we?

I would like to suggest you [Ed: Hawke’s Bay’s councils] consider going a step further than simply putting a 10-year moratorium on outdoor field trials. I think we need to incorporate the fact in to our Hawke’s Bay story and see it as a huge regional benefit, not an agricultural handbrake. It says a lot, not only about what it means to buy food from here but also what it means to visit, live and work here. Somehow our GE Free attributes need to sit alongside and support our Hawke’s Bay brand.

So my argument would be, it’s not necessarily about the potential scientific attributes of this genetically-modified apple versus this one that is not. It is about this apple being from Hawke’s Bay – and what that means.

We know what that means. But in California or Shanghai or London or even Sydney – they probably don’t.

But if I know this apple comes from a region in New Zealand that has made a stand to be free of genetic modification – then that tells me a lot. It’s a short cut to telling me that this is a place that prides itself on producing wholesome natural food and is standing up and saying so. And for an increasing number of consumers, supermarket chains, global distributors and even fast food companies, that is a story – and therefore potentially a region – they definitely want to be associated with and will be proud to spread the word about.

Just a final word and a complete aside, back to my vast scientific knowledge. It has always bugged me how there’s a perception that genetic modification is portrayed as pro science, progress, productivity and profitability while anything against genetic modification is accused of being ‘head in the sand’ and anti-progress and anti-science.

But what if we embraced being a GE Free region not just from a food or plant point of view, but also from a scientific and productive point of view? What if we put the region’s scientific focus on becoming world leaders in understanding and progressing the natural science of food and crop production and nutrition?

GE Free Hawke’s Bay. World leaders in the science of natural food.

That would provide some food for thought.

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