Farming Must Adapt to Disruptive Tech

(Published on 28th August 2017)

Farmers played an active role at the 'Tipping Points' conference in Auckland, particularly Session 3 which was entitled 'The Future of Farming.' NZ Landcare Trust was on hand to hear about the challenges that lay ahead for farming in this country.

We increasingly hear experts use the term 'disruptive technologies' - a phrase used to describe the rapid emergence of new technologies that displace or transform the way things are done. Think about the arrival of the car, the telephone, the personal computer, the impact of automation and robotics, or how renewable energy production is increasingly transforming the way we generate power. In the same way, cellular agriculture is set to disrupt conventional farming methods.

Kicking off The Future of Farming session Dr Rosie Bosworth, Senior Strategic Planner with 'Rethink X' delivered a powerful message - meat products created using cellular agriculture are already on the shelves of shops in North America and parts of Europe, and meat produced this way will reach New Zealand shores within five years. Cellular agriculture enables meat to be grown in a lab within six weeks and the cells from one cow can produce enough food to feed a small country for a year. This means any thoughts of conventional farming methods competing on volume and price, simply don't stack up. Dr Bosworth predicted that the new technology will enable meat to be produced for as little as $2 per kilo. In addition research has confirmed that Millennial consumers in particular are attracted to the new food technology due to the significant environmental benefits, absence of hormones and antibiotics, greatly reduced bacterial contamination and the avoidance of the need to slaughter animals.

While this news may be a shock to many Dr Bosworth does not believe cellular agriculture marks the end of traditional farming. However huge changes will be required. Farming will remain economically viable in New Zealand as long as it adapts to changing international markets and targets discerning high-end consumers who are willing to pay a premium for food. This will mean harnessing our clean green international reputation by increasing farm sustainability and developing compelling, honest stories that underlines the additional value.

The next speaker, CEO of Landcorp Steven Carden agreed with Dr Bosworth's analysis. However as the CEO of a 2 billion dollar farming business that employs over 1,000 people and supports a further 20,000 people in rural communities, his job is to work out how to physically transition to this new future. He began by acknowledging that traditional farming has made a huge contribution to the economic success of New Zealand but confirmed the traditional intensification model that has served the country so well needs to change. We need a new strategy for making wealth from our farms and the land we are entrusted to farm.

Mr Carden suggested five areas where agriculture needs to change. Firstly recognise that real problems exist and take practical steps to address them. For example Landcorp responded to criticism about their dairy expansion and intensification strategy by setting up the Environmental Reference Group that included experts who were highly critical of current practices. The group worked closely with the Landcorp management team to confront challenging issues and identify how Landcorp might farm more responsibly while making a good return. The group has played an important role helping to shape current business strategy, which has already seen an end to dairy expansion, the removal of palm kernel and the introduction of a reforestation programme.

The second change is to produce food differently. Farmers are increasingly harnessing technology to develop precision farming systems and this needs to continue. Constant measuring and monitoring provides critical information that allows farmers to be much more specific about the quantities of fertilisers and water used, to allow just the right growth profiles needed to optimise farm productivity. At a system scale, dairy farms will have fewer dairy cows and will move away from a monoculture approach and embrace diversity - which might include horticulture and forestry.

Thirdly accept diets are changing. Modern trends are moving increasingly towards plant based diets with meat viewed as a side element rather than the focus of a meal. Therefore New Zealand must respond accordingly and plan to increase horticultural production as part of a strategy for diversification. With regard to meat, the huge level of investment that has gone into cellular agriculture means that New Zealand must surrender the idea of being a low cost producer of animal protein, and instead move toward the premium market.

The fourth change is to 'go niche.' Farmers are fed up with being told they need to move up the value chain - they know this, the problem is how? Landcorp have set out to help answer this question, starting by moving away from a commodities mentality and thinking about how they can differentiate their products from others. The milk they produce is focussing on high-end, 100% organic, grass fed, PKE free milk. They don't want to produce commodity milk because in the near future it could be easily replaced by low cost substitutes. Landcorp have identified other niche products derived from sheep milk and even deer milk, along with products that tap into the food-for-health movement. In order to help promote these products they have created a brand called PAMU - to convey the environmental and ethical principles that underpin their products.

The fifth change is to get real about the cost of our food. This is where consumers have a key role to play. The food we eat comes with widely differing costs to produce. Not just the physical costs but the social and environmental costs. For example an eight ounce steak takes 850.2 gallons of water to produce while the same quantity of rice requires 97.6 gallons and lettuce 6.8 gallons. A Big Mac is currently priced at about 7 dollars but if all the costs of producing it were internalised it would probably cost 17 dollars. So the purchasing decisions made by the general public drive food production methods and the farming industry can help by keeping the public informed.

Carolyn Mortland the Director of Social Responsibility with Fonterra began her presentation by describing a future vision where technology and dairy farming were closely entwined. While the story was fictional, it was clearly based on technologies that already exist and served to underline the opportunities to harness the potential of technology to reduce environmental impacts. The main thrust of the Fonterra presentation focussed on the need for clarification around environmental limits - greenhouse gasses, water quality and biodiversity. The dairy industry needs to know the size of the gap between where they are now and where they need to be. Once this is established they can work with confidence on bridging the gap. Strong leadership from the government, business and the community was also needed, along with improved collaboration.

The session was wrapped up with a 'speaker and panel' discussion. Guy Salmon Executive Director with Ecologic and Chair of the Landcorp Environmental Reference Group commented on the huge progress made over the last three years and was heartened by the optimism that came from speakers representing the farming community. However more will be needed if New Zealand is to meet it's commitments under the Paris agreement, and cost will be the biggest barrier. Over the longer term New Zealand must become a country that has more forest in its landscape, more horticulture, and less livestock. This process will be accelerated by disruptive technologies such as cellular agriculture.

The next panellist was farmer John Hayward who owns Judge Valley Dairies. He outlined their objective to differentiate their products from others by adopting the mindset that their produce was better, had a better story to tell and could be taken to a global market where people would pay a premium for it. In practical terms this journey began with a land use capability assessment that identified all the contours and soil types, and specified which areas were best suited to dairying. This information also helped identify marginal land areas which led to a significant planting programme, where hillsides were replanted with Manuka. Diversification also played an important role, with maize grown on the property rather than using externally sourced feed. To help improve efficiency the effluent from the cowshed is used as fertiliser to boost the quality and quantity of the maize.

Dr Tanira Kingi Research Leader Primary Systems at Scion, suggested farmers have demonstrated the capacity to adjust to big changes, such as the removal of subsidies in 1984 and 1987. So he believes farmers can respond to clear signals such as incentives and penalties. Dr Kingi also highlighted Maori cultural views on land and water, and the close relationship these resources have with sustaining local communities.

To close the session Steven Carden responded to a question from the audience about what's hindering us from getting together and finding solutions. He said there are two main challenges. Firstly, once these issues become politicised it can lead to entrenched positions and short term thinking, but to solve these problems will require long term strategic thought from a cross section of people. Secondly Carden stated there is something liberating about taking down the defensive shutters and acknowledging a problem. He  went on to encourage other parts of the industry to not feel defensive about where we are now. Recognise a problem exists and change the whole tone of the conversation - move into a more positive problem solving mode.


James Barnett
Communications Manager, NZ Landcare Trust


Both the Landcorp presentation and the Speaker and Panel discussion are available to view online:





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