We all know an O’Rouke, O’Sullivan or a Fitzpatrick. In fact 600,000 Kiwis have our beginnings in the Emerald Isles.

We share potatoes, St Paddy’s Day, beer, work ethics, digging the soil, milking cows, humour and music. We both export much of what we produce.
But, we differ. Ireland has Origin Green, we do not.

Irish eyes were smiling as Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, recently announced the exceptional success of Origin Green – a first in the world, sustainability programme which is cooperatively leading Ireland’s food and beverage producers to become global leaders in the delivery of sustainably-produced food and beverages.

Origin Green was established in 2012 as part of Ireland’s sustainability strategy of the time, Food Harvest 2020, which was set in place after a period of intense economic uncertainty, and financial crisis. The initiative was designed to help transform Ireland’s agri-food industry into one that capitalised on the growing global demand for high quality, safe and nutritious food.

Within three years 470 food and drink manufacturers, accounting for almost 95% of Ireland’s food and drink exports, and 55,000 Irish farms have registered to take part in the voluntary programme.

The prevailing goal of the programme is to have every farm and food manufacturing business demonstrate their commitment to operating in the most sustainable method possible. Credibility in the market place is critical.

Each business must develop an individual, comprehensive plan with measurable targets, which incorporate all pillars of sustainability.

Progress is independently monitored, assessed, and verified annually, through Bord Bia’s existing rigorous quality assurance scheme. Becoming affiliated with Origin Green, verified members are able to differentiate their products with strong market branding.

Consumers know they are buying a quality product, whilst demonstrating their commitment to sustainable farming practices throughout the entire supply chain.

The programme’s point of difference is the interdisciplinary approach it has taken to advance the credentials of the entire country’s agri-food industry. The programme utilises knowledge from organisations such as Teagasc (Ireland’s national body providing integrated research, advisory and training services to agriculture and the food industry) to develop initiatives, such as the ‘Carbon Navigator’ to monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from beef and dairy farms.

90% of Ireland’s beef producers are fully-verified members of the programme. All of Ireland’s 18,000 dairy farms have implemented Carbon Navigator technology under the Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme, which works closely with Origin Green. As Ireland gears up to double its dairy output by 50% to 7.5 billion litres annually by 2020, sustainable growth is seen as a vital ingredient.

Food Harvest 2020, of which Origin Green is an integral part, has seen food and drink exports follow a steady five year growth, faster than any other sector since the economic crash in 2008. In 2015 food and drink exports to 175 international markets increased 3% reaching a record of 10.5 billion euros.

This success is largely attributed to Ireland’s ‘Green’ image, supported by favourable exchange rates. Exporters are aware that authenticating this image is the key to reaching new high-value, differentiated markets.

One such market, with which Bord Bia has just signed a partnership, is SF Best, recognised as China’s leading e-commerce platform for imported premium food and drink, which operates 2,800 stores across China.

Humble beginnings

In 2008 Bord Bia in conjunction with PriceWaterhouseCooper, embarked on an aggressive international research campaign examining consumer perceptions around the sustainability credentials of Irish food and beverages. This research indicated consumers still perceived Ireland as being ‘Green’, but were suspicious. The consumers needed proof.

These findings, along with the developing ‘global middle class’ market, projected to rise from 1.8 billion consumers in 2009, to 3.2 billion in 2020, and the global healthy foods market, estimated to hit the US$1 trillion mark for the first time in 2017, offered potential as an engine of growth for Ireland.

Building on an existing, but rocky ‘Green’ reputation they set about winning the trust of consumers and gaining premium positions in established markets.

Food Harvest 2020 set this in motion with a shift for the agri-food industry from its traditional focus on a commodities-based supply to one that was brand-centred and consumer-focused.

With culture change gaining traction thoughout the industry, the new agri-food strategy – Food Wise 2025 – now supersedes Food Harvest 2020 and focuses on the increase of value and growth opportunities, over production.

Three major game-changers in the Irish economic environment – the abolition of milk quotas, a strong demand for protein products, and differentiating customer demand, has shaped the aspirations of this new strategy.

Its aims are to increase the value of agri-food exports by 85% to 19 billion euros, increase value-added to the sector by 70% to 13 billion euros, and increase the value of primary production by 65% to 10 billion euros. Achieving these targets is expected to deliver a further 23,000 jobs in the agri-food sector by 2025.

Ireland is determined to get this right and become the global leader within premium markets. With a strong agricultural heritage, and a high dependency upon a primary sector export base, should New Zealand be worried about such aggressive competition striving for the top spot?

Mike Petersen, New Zealand special agricultural trade envoy (SATE) and Hawke’s Bay sheep and beef farmer

Mike Petersen, New Zealand special agricultural trade envoy (SATE) and Hawke’s Bay sheep and beef farmer, is exasperated. “I take my hat off to the Irish,” he comments.

“When they put their minds to something there is no stopping them. They are incredibly brave bringing the industry together. It will be fascinating to see how it evolves”

He continues, “However, the fear is New Zealand will fall behind if we don’t proactively manage our international reputation. The time to move is now. It has never been more urgent! New Zealand will end up reactively responding to future challenges, always on the defensive, literally scrambling to get back ahead.”

Peterson is a strong advocate for the development of a new and coherent New Zealand ‘primary sector story’ to drive a higher value from consumer markets.

“Consumers are demanding a greater connection with their food source. They need assurances about the quality, safety and integrity of our products. The consumers are anxious about the environment, animal welfare and sustainability. There are constant challenges to how we are perceived abroad, we live in a highly connected world. It’s time to prove our credentials.”

“I truly believe there is an element of fear associated with change, predominantly within agriculture, where traditions have been built up over generations.”  – Mike Petersen

His answer: “Our producers and exporters need to receive accreditation similar to that of ‘Origin Green’ but in a ‘New Zealand’ way. This needs to be a ‘ground up’ strategy, owned and operated by the primary sector participants with support from the government. We need to reach into the rich library of shared resources. This will ensure the ‘NZInc’ story develops and evolves into something of real value for those who choose to join the scheme.”

Collaboration has been a key element of the success of Origin Green. The sharing of knowledge and support throughout the entire Irish primary industry sector has encouraged all business owners to face the challenges of the future together, and it has given them the capacity to engage on many levels.

This collaborative approach, which includes inputs from the academic and scientific communities, will essentially increase the chances of developing a long-term sustainable industry with greater value, increased resilience to variation, and credibility throughout the supply chain.

Julia Jones, KPMG’s Farm Enterprise Specialist and co-author of the 2015 Agri-business Agenda thinks along the same lines as Petersen.

She remarks, “We cannot feed the world. If we are to stay ahead New Zealand must shift its focus to feeding a proportion of the world’s most affluent and discerning people. The role of farmers has changed. They have to think like the consumer, value begins inside the farm gate.

We do not produce anything that cannot be replicated in other countries, therefore it is vital we differentiate our products, aim for the high-value markets, and change our farming behaviour accordingly. If we don’t make these changes we will become irrelevant.”

Jones says young agricultural leaders are increasingly frustrated with the slow up-take of change within New Zealand’s agri-food industry.

“New Zealand is stuck in bad habits. It is time to stop working within a silo mentality. Our young farmers are eager to collaborate, build relationships, share resources, and information. I truly believe there is an element of fear associated with change, predominantly within agriculture, where traditions have been built up over generations. Historically, we have fought change, but it’s well past time to create something new. Something meaningful to us, and our consumers. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ system, but it is how we respond to potential threats, market gaps, and problems that will keep us at the forefront of the industry.”

It appears we have hit crunch time. It’s a choice. Do we proceed along the unsustainable, low value, commodity route, or take the brave step, directing our efforts and resources into the expanding premium market? Will it take a major crisis to force significant change?

New Zealand has the natural assets, the knowledge and the people to become world leaders, but we need to leave old habits in the past, and “get out of the shed”.

Otherwise Origin Green will eat us alive!

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