Dr Ken Baker: On navigating a post-Covid world
Kea World Class New Zealander, Dr Ken Baker resides in Brussels, Belgium. He spent 13 years managing the World Agricultural Forum (WAF), including as the Chairperson of the Board before it ceased operations in late 2018. The WAF was a non-for-profit institution for private sector leaders and policy makers focussing on providing food, fuel, fibre and water to the world’s growing population. In this interview with Dr Anita Perkins, Ken reflects on New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 and what this might mean for our approach to agriculture and trade. He provides insights on where we might best focus to move forward as a small and prosperous nation facing economic crisis in a post-pandemic world…
Residing in Europe you have an external view of New Zealand and how we have been responding to Covid-19. What does New Zealand look like from the outside in?
To outsiders (non-New Zealanders), New Zealand as a somewhat distant and isolated island nation has been able to manage its response to the coronavirus pandemic well, in part due to those attributes. Conversely, I have a great fear that the extensive national and possible over-self-isolation is not going to play out well as we advance into 2021 and up until 2024. New Zealand’s standard of living is overwhelmingly dependent on being an integral part of the world economy. A far greater emphasis must be placed on trade which will require some increased risk-taking. But are we ready for that?
As a leader with a global perspective, what advice do you have for New Zealanders engaging in the changed global market?
The global market is going to become more competitive. In many sectors and especially manufacturing, there will be a re-deployment of the production means of critical supplies back to home markets. Pharmaceuticals and specialised equipment are likely to be the first examples. In my view, the conclusions New Zealand must draw from this are looking forward to focusing on improved productivity (more and better quality from the same input) added value and the supply of premium and distinctive products. The tourism and logging industries could do with attention in this regard.
What are the primary opportunities and challenges you see specifically in relation to the New Zealand agriculture sector arising from this situation?
Agriculture’s importance to New Zealand is a major source of foreign exchange earnings. As an industry, agriculture (which also includes forestry, hunting and fishing) employs some 6% of the total working population. The outlook for agricultural exports is probably relatively good and thus for employment would appear to be somewhat stable. After all, food is an essential and everyone needs to eat.
One possible adverse sign is that there is an excess of food appearing in many global markets. Reasons are various including the global shutting down of restaurants and food outlets, less throwing away of food (some one third of all food produced is estimated to be thrown away), lower available discretionary spending and disruption to logistics of supply chains due to employee lock-downs. New Zealand mostly exports premium agriculture products often in competition with domestic suppliers. A possible saving grace is that New Zealand is a counter-season producer in many of its markets.
What thoughts do you have on the way in which domestic leaders in New Zealand are approaching New Zealand’s recovery from the pandemic?
Managing the initial stages of immediately reacting to the pandemic while not easy, were accomplished well in New Zealand. The Government took some radical decisions all the while backed up by a team of scientific, health and other experts who provided the ‘cover’ for such a radical and rather risky approach of basically shutting down the country.
It is now clear from elsewhere in the world that exiting the shut-down, and at the same time managing the economic consequences, will prove far more difficult. My thoughts are that organising the exit will consist of two basic parts: public health and the economy. In terms of public health, the main focus during the exit should be on managing the inevitable resurgences of the disease. In terms of the economy, the Government is going to need huge amounts of help, including from the public, in achieving an exit with the minimum possible damage.
How might the recovery process best be managed, and what kind of timeframes would you envisage for this process?
My experience suggests that because of the complexity of this issue, this is going to take a group of people with a wide range of expertise. I believe it will be essential when attempting to get the country on board in a non-partisan way to create a National Regeneration Initiative with the recognition that things may not go back to the way they were.
A huge amount of planning, brainstorming and blood sweat and probably tears, will be required to get this underway. As to the time which will be required, the Christchurch earthquake rebuild although on a much smaller scale than the current crisis, gives some idea of the timeframe one is faced with. It is all doable and there are plenty of models from the past and around the world and the key is organisation and planning.