From distilled spirits to heady years in seed

19:11, Jan 24 2013
Thomas Chin
Thomas Chin the new manager for the New Zealand Grain & Seed Trade Association.

New seed boss Thomas Chin is about to put good use of a 25-year career in the alcohol industry to raise seed exports above $265 million.

This seemingly mixed bag has little in common, but in his latter years he was head of the Distilled Spirits Association, giving him a good understanding of the inner workings of government and policy making.

These connections will come in handy as Chin, 49, works to raise the seed trade's profile.

For the last two months he has been finding his feet in the new environment and talking to as many seed people as he can. He now has a sense of the main issues affecting them and direction in his capacity as the latest manager of the New Zealand Grain and Seed Trade Association (NZGSTA) and NZ Plant Breeding and Research Association.

Other than growing up with parents and grandparents working in the market growing business in Napier since the 1920s, the former Aucklander's agricultural knowledge is on the light side.

This is changing rapidly as his connections grow with the 70-plus companies he represents who produce, process, market, sell, import and research grain and seed


"They didn't employ me for my agricultural background. My role in the organisation is to raise the profile and visibility of the sector with the government and its agencies. In the grand scheme of things dairy is the biggest earner in the agricultural field and grain and seed is much lower than the other sectors. The executive has a view our profile needs to be lifted and grown some more and there is a need to communicate and put out this industry's perspective's with the policy makers. I am bringing a 25-year career in an industry very experienced in public affairs and government work and that's why I have been invited into the role."

Alcohol's big branding programmes and hefty $1 billion- plus sales each year also shadows the seed trade's smaller profile.

This is to be expected because much of the seed is grown in the farming hinterland, out of sight and out of mind of the urban population and goes offshore to grow the pastures, vegetables and crops of the northern hemisphere.

Both, however, rely on the Government and its agencies to conduct their business freely.

Among the public and Wellington policymakers the sector is not widely recognised for its agricultural significance.

Chin, taking over from the retired Ann Harper, was a strong lobbyist for the drinks industry, and involved in the recent rounds of liquor licensing reforms and he wants to raise its recognition.

Chin says the public only needs to look at the seed industry to realise its importance to the economy.

A survey carried out a year ago found 115,000 tonnes of seed is grown over 30,000 hectares for $450m in domestic and international sales.

Seed contributes $246m to GDP and creates 3200 jobs. About $138m is made in exports from pasture and vegetable seeds with grain contributing another $130m. Exports sales will more than likely increase when last year's figures are soon released.

Chin says the seed trade is overlooked because the bigger players in agriculture grab the lion's share of attention.

"There are other high profile sectors out there. But without the seed industry Fonterra's success wouldn't be happening. A lot of people don't realise the seed industry supports the pastoral industry by growing the seed for the grass and feed the cows and the stock need to produce the milk, meat and wool. Without seed we wouldn't have much of a pastoral industry in New Zealand. That significance needs to be reflected in some policy areas." ? ? ? Christchurch is far from the Auckland lifestyle that was not so long ago his home or the university campus at Wellington where he studied for a political science degree.

His new home and work base makes good sense as it is close to New Zealand grain and seed growing basin of Mid-Canterbury.

This food bowl produces much of the nation's seed, but growing regions extend throughout other parts of the country where climate and soils are suited to seed growing.

For the business to grow, Chin and the seed businesses he represents believe improvements need to be made in trade access, intellectual property rights and in biosecurity. A big future is expected for seed exports in Asia and the European Union.

On the main wish-list as far as trade access goes is to reinstate the $4m exports business of brassica seed to China.

New Zealand seed was banned by China in 2011 after a "low-level presence" of blackleg disease was found.

Brassica was a growing business for traders in New Zealand until the ban and seed traders are seeking the Government's assistance to renew export ties.

A new quality-assurance programme is being developed with the Ministry of Primary Industries to reduce the risk of unwanted pests in seed.

Chin says China's vastness makes it an important and growing market for brassica seed.

"The free-trade agreement process has opened the market up, but we are not permitted to make sales until the Chinese jurisdiction is happy with the pest risk mitigation. If the Government and officials could help expedite that that would help our exporters and ultimately New Zealand. I am not saying they are not helping, but it needs more of a push to get things going."

Reopening the trading border and lifting seed exports elsewhere falls in line with the Government's Business Growth Agenda of exports to be 40 per cent of GDP by 2025. Seed exporters are optimistic good results will come from the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations set to end this year. Liberalising Indian and Korean markets could be beneficial for them and lead to more trading opportunities.

Chin expects to fly the seed flag again in the matter of supporting the intellectual property rights of seed owning and breeding businesses.

A global convention called UPOV91 drew up the rights for proprietary plant varieties in 1991. The New Zealand Government signed the agreement, but in the last 14 years the industry is still waiting for it to be brought into domestic legislation.

Companies such as PGG Wrightson Seeds, Agriseeds and Seed Force are looking for legal certainty to protect their proprietary seed rights.

Chin says proprietary and brand-name seeds perform better than common seed varieties and need legislative protection to give breeders and brand owners the confidence to develop and market new and improved varieties.

"The convention safeguards the huge investment that seed companies make in new varieties. Breeders are in the business of developing and taking to the market top-quality cultivars and without this legal certainty it will be detrimental to further research." ? ? ? The cry for more border control can expect to be in fuller voice with seed people wanting to increase pressure on the Government to prevent unwanted pests and diseases entering the country.

To add their weight the two associations under Chin are teaming up with the main agricultural groups such as Horticulture New Zealand and Federated Farmers.

Chin says a strong biosecurity regime can reduce the risk of a pest or seed incursion, which has the potential to become a huge problem for the seed industry if allowed through borders. Tighter security is needed when many countries are increasing import levels.

"We support a strong border, but at the same time some of the regulations could be reviewed to ensure they are not too restrictive to enable the importing of new plants into New Zealand for trial and development work."

Chin says Canterbury's seed- growing hub relies on strong borders, but could become sensitive to overregulation.

"There are a lot of rules and regulations and the concern if they become too onerous it could make staying in Canterbury more difficult. The risk is if local rule and conditions become [too tough] in land or water use the industry may have to relocate offshore."

Such a move would have a bearing on the local economy and put holes in the infrastructure around seed growing and investment, he says. Making a new start again if this happened would be difficult.

While this scenario seems distant and echoes to the lobbying tune, New Zealand companies are growing seed stocks in Australia and further afield.

In the meantime Canterbury's good seed-growing climate, free- draining and fertile soils and irrigation network and existing infrastructure make it the site of preference for seed companies.

Its position in the southern hemisphere makes it ideally placed to grow and multiply seed stocks for northern farmers.

"That's why we are here because they give us the competitive advantage," says Chin. "If the rules and regulations make it tougher we don't want the industry to relocate offshore. We would rather see more seed and grain trucks on our roads than [fewer] of them."

The Press