Agricultural acumen at the forefront of NZ trade

Forrest Gump and I share at least one thing in common – popping up at historic moments.

Rather than John F Kennedy, my encounters were then-New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in my capacity as an interpreter and writer in the Asian Affairs Division of the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The time in question was 1978 – a period punctuated by the PM chest-beating his intent to “drag the Japanese kicking and screaming into the 20th century”. His rancour was part of a demand for a ‘squid pro quo’ trade deal with Japanese Agriculture Minister Ichiro Nakagawa and greater access to Japanese markets.

Muldoon’s utterances generally fell on deaf, certainly inscrutable, ears.  That didn’t stop the Ministry’s strategy of influencing Japanese public opinion by inviting opinion formers to see firsthand how efficient a farming nation we were. 

One particularly important visitor I looked after for two weeks was Masao Oka, editor of the daily Nihon Nogyo Shimbun (Japan Agricultural Journal) with a readership of over 400,000.  After a meeting with the New Zealand Meat Exporters Council he gave his assessment of the state of play in the ‘fish for beef’ wrangle recorded in the Dominion Post on 9 November 1978:  “Japan would not open its market to beef imports because our farmers fear their market would be flooded.  However, this has to be weighed against the Japanese consumer desire for cheaper beef. Therefore I predict a gradual increase.” 

Diplomacy can be a slow process but what wasn’t lost in translation was the sophistication of the New Zealand agricultural infrastructure which even Mr Oka couldn’t ignore.  In particular how all the parts of the agricultural ‘puzzle’—from policy making and research centres through to farm practices—fitted together.  This capacity was born at a time of assured commodity access to the United Kingdom but it was in the process of finding new feet in order to keep agricultural acumen at the forefront of New Zealand’s sustainability. 

Fast forward to the present day to New Zealand’s position of leadership, with the Trans Pacific Partnership’s focus on opening up trade, boosting investment flows, and promoting closer links across a range of economic policy and regulatory issues.  

The ‘dragging kicking and screaming’ part may well be gone but the leadership role that agriculture still plays in New Zealand’s destiny is what got us our place at the bargaining table.  Like Forrest, I take pride in sharing a small, but important, moment of history

 This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.