MPI's story

MPI has a long and rich history in New Zealand and abroad. Find out how MPI and New Zealand's primary industries have evolved since the 1800s.

The story of MPI

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has been around in some form since the late 1800s. Find out how we've evolved from 30 sheep inspectors to a large government ministry, employing over 2,900 staff working to grow and protect New Zealand.

Evolution of MPI – a timeline

1875 – 30 sheep inspectors form the Stock Branch of the Department of Crown Lands
1877 – Marine Department becomes responsible for regulating fisheries
1885 – Forests and Agricultural Branch of the Department of Crown Lands created
1892 – Department of Agriculture forms from Livestock and Agriculture Branches
1915 – Department of Agriculture employs over 400 staff
1919 – State Forest Service becomes the dedicated forestry department
1960s – Animal and plant quarantine inspectorates join to form the Port Agricultural Service
1963 – Fisheries Research Division set up within the Marine Department
1972 – Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries forms
1987 – Ministry of Forestry forms, taking on forestry regulation from the Forest Service
1995 – Fisheries functions split off to form separate Ministry of Fisheries and Ministry of Agriculture
1998 – Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Forestry join to form Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF)
2002 – NZ Food Safety Authority forms
2004 – Biosecurity NZ forms within MAF
2010 – MAF and NZ Food Safety Authority join
2011 – Ministry of Fisheries merges with Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF)
2012 – MAF renamed as Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI)
2018 – MPI forms 4 business units – New Zealand Food Safety, Biosecurity New Zealand, Fisheries New Zealand, and Te Uru Rākau – New Zealand Forest Service.
2019 – A fifth business unit is formed: Agriculture and Investment Services.

From our picture archives

A group of around 20 people stand around a trestle table in an apple orchard as Department of Agriculture staff demonstrate apple packing in timber boxes to growers.
Department of Agriculture staff demonstrate apple packing to growers in the early 1900s.

MPI today

MPI's staff work throughout New Zealand and internationally. They provide policy and regulatory advice, market access and trade services, and manage major regulatory systems of biosecurity, food safety, forestry, fisheries management, and animal welfare.

The changing face of New Zealand primary industries

Learn about some of the changes in New Zealand since the early 1800s in:



Until the middle of the 1800s Māori dominated the farming scene – supplying the local market as well as exporting wheat and potatoes to Australia. As more people arrived, the Government came under increasing pressure to supply land for farming and settlement.

From the 1880s refrigerated shipping opened new opportunities for New Zealand meat, dairy, and horticulture farmers. As they expanded, so did the need for Government regulations and support.

Dairy was increasingly important and in 1883 the Government employed an expert to visit dairy factories and give management advice.

In 1892 the Department of Agriculture formed with the aim of giving farmers expert scientific advice.


Mechanical milking took off on dairy farms from the early 1900s and herd sizes increased.

Farms developed across the country, and grew further after World War I through:

  • land clearance and settlement by returning soldiers
  • increased use of fertilisers, white clover and new pasture mixes.

From the late 1920s to 1950 the carrying capacity of a typical New Zealand farm more than trebled.

From 1945 to 1960 sheep meat production grew by 50% – mostly through aerial top-dressing of super-phosphate on hill-country farms.

From the 1970s falling wool prices reduced the profitablity of hill-country farming. Some of these farms were planted with pine trees.


Dairy continued to grow and in 2001 the 2 largest dairy co-operatives merged to form Fonterra.

In 2015 changes to the Animal Welfare Act strengthened MPI's ability to make sure animals are cared for appropriately.

Today, New Zealand's farming exports are worth around $28 billion with products ranging from meat, wool, and dairy through to honey, kiwifruit, and wine. Dairy contributes around half of this.



Early fisheries involved Māori supplying fish to the local market and exporting some to Australia and California. Later, iwi (tribes) were excluded from commercial fishing and Europeans became increasingly involved.


Vessels became larger and more powerful, increasing the number of fish they could catch. From 1903, under the Sea Fisheries Act:

  • all fishing vessels operating in New Zealand had to be licensed
  • vessels and factories had to supply catch returns to the Marine Department.

By the 1970s growth in exports of fish resulted in overfishing of some species.

In 1978 New Zealand extended its exclusive fishing zone from 12 nautical miles out to 200 nautical miles – the world's fourth largest EEZ. Deepwater fisheries expanded rapidly and in 1981 a quota was set limiting catch of orange roughy.

In 1986 the Government placed 30 inshore species under a Quota Management System. This turned the right to catch fish commercially into a tradeable property – breaching the Treaty of Waitangi agreement for Māori access to their fisheries. In 1992 the Crown allocated Māori 20% of all quota.


In 2017 regulations for digital systems on commercial fishing vessels were introduced. When in place, these systems will help track, monitor, and report on commercial fishing vessel activities.

Today, New Zealand's seafood exports are worth over $1.7 billion. The Government continues to focus on ensuring our fisheries are harvested sustainably.

New Zealand primary industry highlights

1851 – New Zealand's first winery planted by Marist brothers
1882 – First frozen meat exported
1882 – First cheese produced at first purpose-built dairy factory at Edendale
1896 – First border checks of fruit and plants
1903 – Fishing vessel license and catch returns introduced
1953 – Commercial sale of raw (unpasteurised) milk banned
1962 – New Zealand growers re-name the Chinese gooseberry 'kiwifruit'
1986 – Overfishing leads to Quota Management System
1980s – Plantings of sauvignon blanc grape expand
1995 – Greenshell mussels trademarked
2015 – Mānuka honey exports top $200 million
2018 – New Zealand scientifically defines Mānuka honey

Food safety


The New Zealand Government's first action to make sure our food was fit-for-purpose was the Tea Examination Act (1882) – making it illegal to add other substances to tea.

Refrigerated shipping appeared in the late 1800s and a growing trade developed around exports of frozen sheep and beef, and chilled dairy products.

In 1888 the Government began inspecting dairy factories, to make sure exports were safe and suitable. Ten years later it was making sure town milk was hygienic. By 1900 all dairy products could be traced through branding with producer registration.


From 1900, following concern about poor food hygiene standards in slaughterhouses, the Government required vet inspections of all stock before and after slaughter. New Zealand led the world in meat hygiene.

In 1938 a department report to Government recommended TB-testing of all town milk cows and the pasteurisation of milk. This led to a ban on the commercial sale of raw (unpasteurised) milk in 1953 by the Department of Health.


Food safety is an ongoing priority – Campylobacter foodborne illness was halved between 2006 and 2012.

Today, 700 MPI-approved verifiers check that food businesses are following food safety rules. Over 2.4 million food tests are carried out each year to check food safety measures are working.



Early forestry involved Māori supplying logs in exchange for tools, guns, and other goods – the timber went to growing Australian colonies. From 1840 the export trade became more established and, a decade later, timber made up a third of New Zealand's exports.

European settlement increased local demand for timber – from 1870 to 1920 almost all timber milled was used in New Zealand.

By the 1890s the Department of Crown Lands began planting introduced species to meet future timber needs. Demand grew and the Government struggled to manage it.

From the 1940s picture archives

A black and white archive image of an early New Zealand forestry worker attaching logs with a chain to a work horse.
A 1940s Forest Service worker attaches chains to logs behind a horse (Image: Alison Brown).


In 1919 the Government established the State Forest Service to sustainably manage timber harvests on Crown land.

Large areas of pine trees were planted during the Great Depression and – along with other Crown forests – were managed by the Forest Service. Most of this timber was exported.

The Forest Service was dismantled in 1987, and since 1990 the Crown has been selling or handing back its planted forest land.

In the 1990s the Government increased support for conversion of pasture to forestry to help control erosion.


Today, New Zealand forests cover 31% of the country and provide nearly $5.5 billion in exports. They are an important part of our Emissions Trading Scheme.

Pest and disease control (biosecurity)


Many plants and animals that were introduced to New Zealand thrived as there were few natural pests or diseases.

By the 1860s intensified cropping resulted in a plague of insects.

Farmers introduced starlings, sparrows, and finches to control the insects. Their populations exploded too, damaging crops in the wheat boom of the 1870s.

Rabbits were also out of control in parts of New Zealand.

Letter from Department of Agriculture rabbit inspector to a farmer, around 1900:

"I was down your road last week and seen a Hell of a lot of rabbits in them mine tailings behind your house … the neighbours tell me that you was down the pub and that you was drunk for four days last Christmas and you haven’t done a dam thing about them rabbits since last time I stirred you up… NOW THEREFORE TAKE NOTICE that me being an inspector under the said act hereto require you to forthwith commence rabbit destruction work immediately in default of which you’ll go to Gaol which will probably be a bloody good thing as far as your concerned."

The Government brought in the Animals Importation Prohibition Act (1876) to stop import of any animals that might cause farmers problems. In 1896 the Orchard and Garden Pests Act allowed inspection of imported fruit and plant material for pests and diseases at the border.


By the 1900s most of New Zealand was affected by the spread of phylloxera (an aphid) and codling moth.

In 1903 another Orchard and Garden Pests Act allowed the Government to inspect local fruit and contain any major outbreaks of disease.

A boom in air travel after World War II created new challenges for our quarantine and border authorities.


In 2017 the Government announced Biosecurity 2025 to guide our biosecurity system into the future. One of its aims is to establish a biosecurity team of 4.7 million – where every New Zealander helps to protect our country from pest and diseases.

Find out more

White collars and gumboots: a history of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, 1892–1992

Primary industries data

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