26 Sep 2016

Foreign investment in food raises fears over loss of control

1:05 pm on 26 September 2016

A wave of overseas money flowing into the food processing industry has heightened fears that New Zealand is losing control over its biggest export earner.

Beef carcasses

Ross Hyland estimates 55 percent of the beef sector and up to 45 percent of the sheep industry are foreign owned. Photo: 123RF

Silver Fern Farms' controversial $260 million deal with Shanghai Maling received the final tick of approval from the government last week, based on its belief the purchase would be a substantial benefit to New Zealand.

Back in July, Silver Fern Farms chairman Rob Hewett said the deal would keep its 7000 staff in work.

"More often than not in rural areas where there aren't that many alternatives, those jobs are staying there. The plants are staying there. The livestock are staying here. The farmers who own the business are staying here.

"This is about Shanghai Maling investing into New Zealand. We will be cutting the meat here to add value to it, to create the premium red meat brand alongside Shanghai Maling in China. I think that's a great outcome," Mr Hewett said.

Silver Fern Farms CEO Dean Hamilton and board chair Rob Hewett at a special shareholders' meeting in Dunedin on 12 August 2016.

Silver Fern Farms chief executive Dean Hamilton and board chair Rob Hewett. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

But agricultural consultant Ross Hyland was troubled by the purchase, saying Shanghai Maling, not farmers nor New Zealand, would benefit from the value created.

"As a shareholder, if you've (Shanghai Maling) got 50 percent of a business in New Zealand which is procuring you raw material and you control all the major decisions around the board table, I'd be taking as much of that product at the cheapest price up into my retail chains and taking 100 percent of the profits there as opposed to paying a dollar more than you have to," Mr Hyland said.

He estimated 55 percent of the beef sector and up to 45 percent of the sheep industry were foreign owned.

"The only way you will drive a greater price through the farm gate is to control the value chain into the market.

"And I think Zespri's [kiwifruit marketer] probably the best New Zealand example of controlling the product all the way into the market and capturing that value-add," Mr Hyland said.

Foreigners were eager investors, as Asia's expanding middle class demanded more dairy and meat products.

KPMG's Justin Ensor calculated about $4 billion of overseas money had been invested in New Zealand in the past three years, mainly from Asia and the United States.

That was about 15 percent of the roughly $26bn in foreign direct investment in the same period.

"I'd describe them as win-win to the extent that it secures a supply chain for us into a market. From an overseas perspective we have a competitive advantage in some of these industries and it's an attractive place to invest," Mr Ensor said.

And foreign money could arguably be a firm's last chance.

In an industry marked by excess capacity, Silver Fern Farms chief executive Dean Hamilton was blunt about the lack of local interest in strengthening the company's financial position and future.

"People seem to believe that we only went overseas. That's not true," Mr Hamilton said.

"We spoke to the major institutions in New Zealand and ultimately that level of capital for this business wasn't available."

Silver Ferns Farms also argues there are protections in its agreement with Shanghai Maling to prevent the Chinese company from capturing most of the gain from the prices paid by end consumers, at the expense of farmers.

Dairy was also a capital-hungry business.

Mataura Valley Milk director Aaron Moody said it too had to look offshore for the cash for its planned $200m milk powder manufacturing plant at McNab, near Gore.

The state-owned China Animal Husbandry Group will have a 72 percent stake in the plant, with Southland farmers owning 20 percent.

Mr Moody said the district had embraced the investment.

"We've had very positive feedback from the community. It has a big impact here.

"We expect roughly $90 million a year going back into the local community in terms of farmer supplies, local jobs and services, so that's exciting."

Keep Our Assets Canterbury spokesman Murray Horton

Murray Horton Photo: Supplied

But Murray Horton of the Campaign Against Foreign Control in Aotearoa said it was time the government clamped down on foreign investment.

"They want to cash in on what we're very good at. It is still our point of difference in the global market.

"And if we allow land to be bought, and the products of the land to be bought, owned and controlled from overseas then the benefits go out of this country'" Mr Horton said.

A change was highly unlikely.

New Zealand is heavily reliant on foreign savings to fund growth, and successive governments since the mid-1980s have been adamant the country will remain open for investment.

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