Free trade will help solve food challenges, says NZ farm leader

Countries should still be able to promote national production through subsidies, he added

BALI, Indonesia — New Zealand farm leader Bruce Wills says the first thing he does in the morning is check overnight currency fluctuations and their effect on his international selling price.

Excess water has been the biggest recurring problem on his farm over the past few years as weather patterns and climate change.

In the world of the future, food security will be a major issue in many poor countries.

All of these factors bolster his long-held view that free trade and anti-protectionism should be the model for the future of farming.

“The biggest issues facing us are food security, climate change and volatility,” the president of Federated Farmers of New Zealand told a world farmers forum Dec. 5.

“Climate change and food security will produce more pressure for free trade, for more trade not less.”

Wills, a board member of the World Farmers’ Organization, was in Bali with other organization leaders to issue a trade policy during last week’s WTO ministerial conference.

He seems an unlikely fit in the new international farm organization, whose guiding principles include a provision that despite supporting trade and reducing trade barriers, trade policy should not prohibit countries from creating programs that promote national production, including safety net subsidies and tariffs.

Wills argues that unsubsidized, trade-oriented agriculture is an answer to evolving world problems as a growing population requires more food and production in many parts of the world becomes unstable. However, he noted that his views also are rooted in history.

He comes from a 30-year New 
Zealand farm tradition of opposing protectionism and government 

In 1984, Federated Farmers of New Zealand asked the government to end existing policies of heavy subsidization and protection.

“It was rough in the early going,” said Wills, who was a banker dealing with farmer clients at the time. 

“Farmers walked away from the land. There were suicides.”

However, he said the result has been an efficient, prosperous farm sector that exports 90 percent of what it produces and is attuned to signals of what the world market wants. The sheep herd is half what it was 30 years ago “because that’s what the market signals have told us.”

And despite upheaval in the beginning, “there’s not a farmer in New Zealand who would want to turn the clock back,” said Wills. 

“We came from a highly protected, inefficient sector to one of the most efficient in the world, and we don’t think agriculture should be a special case.”

He now thinks the principles of the New Zealand farm policy revolution can help the world meet its food challenges.

“I believe we should produce food where it is most efficiently produced with the smallest environmental impact,” he said. “Reducing protectionist barriers will help move that food where it is most needed.”

Meanwhile, the New Zealand government has set a goal of doubling the value of farm production by 2025.

“It is an exciting challenge,” he said, while noting that meeting the goal will depend as much on future commodity prices as it will on production increases.


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