Bia and Kai: the same, only different.

In the next 4 months, as New Zealand enters its winter and Ireland leaves its summer, 2 events will bring together the productive drivers of each country, their farmers. National Field Days, the largest agricultural show in the Southern Hemisphere and National Ploughing Championships, the largest agricultural exhibition in Ireland, will both showcase all that is great about the agricultural capabilities of each country.

Following 6 weeks in my home country of Ireland the likeness of these islands has rarely been more acute to me as I now return to my adopted home of New Zealand, just in time for Fieldays. Like any good relationship, what you find similar kicks off the attraction but what you find different is the real basis for a long-lasting relationship. I’ve often described New Zealand as similar enough to be comfortable and different enough to be exciting.

In these global times of growing populations and shifting wealth profiles there is a lot to gain in exploring the role of these 2 producing nations and the differences that could add up to something. There are rich lessons in differences that encompass include food narratives, market access, farming practices, seasonal supply and technology applications.

Rooted in grass and fed with rain, neither Ireland nor New Zealand has any closer likeness than the other. The shape of our lands is imbued in our foods … prevailing rain and winds, mountains, grass roots and the stuff of soil. All of this comes out in our lamb (be it Connemara or Hawkes Bay), our dairy (be it Kerrygold or Anchor) and our drink (be it Cloudy Bay or Bushmills).

The likeness goes beyond pasture-based farming systems. Both countries play their roles out on the edge, Ireland from the western seaboard of Europe and New Zealand from the edge of the world. Both countries have cultures strongly influenced by tribal values, even if the history of those tribal connections is different. We can both talk of treaties, land wars and reconciliations.

With identical population sizes, the distribution of power and the identity of the individual in society are also alike. In either country, if you put your mind to sitting down face to face with an elected leader you will do so quickly. The same cannot be said of other nations with larger populations and even greater distributions of power and wealth. I believe this has a profound influence on our comparable mindsets and value systems.

With all these similarities, it’s no wonder we like each other. As I mentioned, it’s in the differences that we might find material to take this relationship to the next level. Especially at a time when there are new food systems and technologies set to disrupt traditional food options. Many a good relationship is forged under shared pressures.

One of the obvious differences lies in the old real estate adage: location, location, location. The edges we reside on are very different. Ireland’s position on the edge of Europe is a defining part of its economic successes. As an active and committed member of the European Union Ireland has access to market that New Zealand can only dream of, but hopefully some of that dream might come true over the next few years as the free trade agreement between NZ and the EU is progressed. A long history of emigration to the US also enables Ireland’s location to be leveraged by many US corporates as an entry point to that market. The uncertainties around Brexit are only adding to the importance of that role. With all these political  and trade shifts, Ireland has never been a better place for NZ companies to enter these markets.

A mix of location and history has driven different population shifts for the 2 countries. The widespread Irish diaspora was created in response to famine, recession and opportunities. The Irish have gone out and populated the world with hard work and good humour. New Zealanders have equally forged a good reputation internationally. However, the movement of population has been more notable as an inbound flow to this land with its history of Maori and European discovery. Out here on the edge, things look a bit different. We have the same population, but New Zealand has nearly 4 times the landmass. In the last year I’ve walked by both the Cliffs of Moher and the Tokata lighthouse at Nugget Point. These are both stunningly beautiful places, and yet you’ll jostle for position on the European cliff edge whilst breathing in the solitude of the antipodean edge.

Of all the differences I think the ripest for mutual benefit lies in skills developed by each of the peoples in response to their location and history.

For a large part of our history, Ireland was not a materially wealthy country. This absence of material riches meant we placed an emphasis on music, dance, sport and, above all, words. The ability to tell a story is deep within our culture, and we’ve learnt how to put it to good use. We tell our stories with an ease that now mixes well with our commerce. Our products are great and our ability to repeatedly build a narrative around them makes them even greater.  The importance of doing this ‘repeatedly’ came home to me very clearly when I recently met some of the Bord Bia team in Dublin. Bord Bia is a State agency responsible for promoting Irish food and drink – effectively a marketing team that works in concert with the private sector.  Their work on Origin Green has been well noted around the world as a powerful sustainability story backed with real capability development. It would have to be said that many in New Zealand have had a touch of green themselves when they comment on it. What struck me at that Dublin meeting was a comment along the lines ‘Oh yes, Origin Green has been a useful approach in many markets, but there are other markets where a different approach is more impactful’. The success of Origin Green is but one example of the ability to build a good narrative and I’m sure we will see many more from Bord Bia and their collaborators. It would be inappropriate for New Zealand to copy Origin Green. That would be akin to one company copying the health and safety policy of another, where the real thing worth modelling is the thinking that created the policy.

New Zealand’s history is one of self-sufficiency, resilience and innovation. The openness of Maori culture to the arrival of European settlers and their technologies is a lesson in adaptive innovation. They had an expansive view of the world that recognised there was value in the technologies and contributions that came along with these strange folks. When you’re out on the edge there is no one else to rely on but yourself. And so New Zealand culture has been forged in an ability to solve problems and drive performance without external support. This has been applied religiously to the national sport, and also to their farming practices. Unprotected and unassisted farming in New Zealand has developed into a highly efficient and effective global food producer. This has included innovative and concerted transformation in farming practice. 20 years ago, there was little dairy farming in New Zealand, they were busy building their reputation in sheep. Within that period, they have built an export dependent industry, a long way from the major dairy consuming markets, to the point that they are the world’s largest dairy exporter. Dairy is just one example of the fruits of NZ making the most of it’s location and history in innovations to adapt farming practices. Merino wool, kiwifruit and electric fencing are examples of other exports driven by adaptations in practice on farm. There is another wave of farm innovation underway with sheep milk nutraceuticals, omega 3 lamb and functional wool air filtering. Excellence in farming comes from a mindset of both fierce independence (self-reliance and problem solving without external support) and an eye to what the world is demanding. New Zealand culture has always been about having ‘feet on the ground, with an eye to the future’.

At this point in world history, both countries are trying to figure out what it will mean, as food producing nations, to live on a planet with 10 billion mouths to feed. Neither country can feed the world, but between them they represent 10 million people who can, amongst other things, provide natural food experiences to the 1-2 billion people who are willing and able to pay for those experiences. To be successful in that endeavour both countries will be doing similar things…protecting their natural resources, amplifying all that is good about natural food and using innovations in food production and communications to achieve that.

In these endeavours, the relationship between both countries has the potential to benefit from the strengths in differences. Each country is strongly engaged in encouraging the innovations that will drive the required results. Both Callaghan Innovation and Enterprise Ireland will showcase technologies at both National Fieldays and the National Ploughing Championships – on both occasions that’s a 2-way flow that shifts from technology provider to technology consumer seamlessly and regularly. There is a tremendous amount to learn from farm practices to creative marketing and all points in between.  There is even compatibility in the counter seasonal supply of similar food provenance from these doppelgänger nations.

So in the next 4 months, if you’re travelling through the countryside or the agricultural exhibitions blink hard and you could easily confuse yourself about which land you’re travelling through. Look a bit harder and you’ll see useful lessons in each other’s’ experiences and practices.


‘Bia’ (noun) Irish word for food

‘Kai’ (noun) Maori word for food or meal


Article written by Brendan O’Connell, Crannora Consulting


Leave a Reply