Launch of the Sustainable Food and Fibres Future Project: Humble to Hero


Tēnā koutou, and a pleasant evening to all those here tonight

First things firsts, I would like to say thank you for this opportunity to attend this event and speak to you all.

I want to acknowledge our guests here tonight – these include our foreign dignitaries from across the globe, alongside all our representatives from industry and government.

I also want to note the words that were just shared by Deputy Chairman of Onions New Zealand, Kevin Wilcox. Like him, our Government agrees that good things happen when industry can come together to achieve their shared goals. And it is even better Government can play a role in helping them reach those goals too. 

As the Associate Minister for Agriculture, I constantly hear stories about the incredible tenacity and entrepreneurship that exists within New Zealand’s agriculture industry. And tonight, we’re gathered here to celebrate a sector that exemplifies that – the onion industry.

The onion industry, despite its humble reputation, deserves more recognition. This is especially true when it is worth more than $14 billion, and exports to countries all around the globe.

Whether you’re eating Nasi Goreng in Indonesia, Shepherds Pie in the UK, or French Onion Soup in France, there is a good chance it may have been made with a few humble kiwi onions.

New Zealand produces onions from Pukekohe to Canterbury. A good 15 percent of our production is in the Hawke’s Bay, which as we know, was severely impacted this year from Cyclone Gabrielle. We also know onion crops in Pukekohe were badly affected by the January flooding in Auckland.

For farmers whose livelihoods depend on their crops, events like these can cause immense stress. Farming is already a challenging industry, and intensifying weather events only make things harder. I want to express my heartfelt sympathy to all those present here whose businesses may have been affected by the recent catastrophic weather events.

Our Government is committed to supporting onion growers where we can. Recently we established a Waikato On Farm Support team that has built relationships with growers this year in Pukekohe, offering support throughout the emergency response and recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle.

On Farm Support has now appointed a horticulture expert who can offer even more expertise in this field, which I hear has been welcomed on-the-ground.

New Zealand is currently the eighth largest onion exporter globally by value, with our onion exports representing 4 percent of global onion trade, and it pumps $137 million back into our economy. So, it’s in our country’s best interests to not only hold this position, but be ambitious, and boost our competitiveness internationally even more.

This Humble to Hero partnership was one of the first programmes approved following the release of the Government and food and fibre sector’s Fit for a Better World strategy.

Fit for a Better World is focused on increasing our productivity, improving our sustainability, and being an inclusive food and fibre sector. The strategy is well-aligned with what this partnership looks to achieve, particularly around diversifying exports, growing emerging horticulture sectors, improving waste streams, and ultimately growing the sector sustainably to create more jobs in rural New Zealand.

With all that in mind, it was a smart move for our Government to choose Onions New Zealand to partner with on this 6 million dollar programme through MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.

Through this programme, we will invest close to 3 million dollars over six years, which will work to deliver sustainable returns to onion growers and exporters. This includes discovering new opportunities to increase our access to diversified global markets.

Tonight marks almost two years to the day since the Humble to Hero programme began, with the original launch sadly being cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. So, while the invitation calls this event a launch, it is somewhat belated – so instead, let us call it a ‘celebration’.

Two years is an ideal point to celebrate this programme and take stock of everything it has achieved so far, despite all the odds.

Like many other industries in our horticulture sector, our New Zealand onion industry has faced some incredibly tough years. COVID-19, biosecurity threats, shipping rates, and extreme adverse weather events have all taken their toll.

This programme plays an important role in increasing the resilience of the sector. I understand that Onions New Zealand CEO James Kuperus will be talking about the specifics of the programme next, and what it’s achieved so far.

I have been told that this programme is already delivering results - with market access to Thailand gained last year, thanks to the added support from MPI and MFAT officials.

The sector has also benefitted from our Free Trade Agreement with the UK, which removed the eight percent tariff on onions, and we’re looking forward to the EU FTA entering into force soon as well.

Our challenge right now is to show the world that we have a reliable and traceable product, that we are tackling industry greenhouse gas emissions, that we are exploring smarter options to reduce waste, and that we’re embedding sustainable growing systems more widely.

By demonstrating these things, we will show our value and point of difference to the most discerning consumers across the globe. And from what I know about your sector already, it’s clear that you are all up to the task.

It’s an exciting time as we move out of the commodity market and capture emerging high-value opportunities – moving our onions from ‘humble’ to ‘hero’.

Thank you again for this opportunity to speak, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.