Future of Agriculture

(Published on 6th March 2015)

Former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and current Chair of WWF-NZ Dr Morgan Williams was the guest speaker at a recent Community Catchment Management Workshop organised by NZ Landcare Trust in Murchison. The programme also included presentations from community farming representatives, who highlighted the benefits and successes of community involvement within projects in this region.

Dr Williams began by voicing his support for the work rural communities are doing in sustainable catchment management projects, before outlining his perspectives on broader global and national issues shaping agriculture.

Morgan set the scene by highlighting that farmers are working with highly complex systems, both environmentally and economically, and these 'systems' were evolving and changing. He stressed the importance of ‘thinking systems’ because our physical, societal and economic worlds are so intertwined, with many things changing.

As an indicator of global change he cited The World Economic Forum which meets every winter at Davos in Switzerland. Each meeting brings together around 2,500 of the worlds top business and political leaders, academics and journalists to discuss pressing issues facing the world.

For food and food production systems the 2009 Davos meeting marked a turning point, with sustainability identified in a Forum Paper as an imperative for human security and survival, challenging policy makers to identify ways for humanity to thrive not just survive. With the growing focus on food production we are presented with a global challenge to identify systems that have the capacity to produce enough food while also offering long term environmental sustainability. That is maintain our natural capitals - our soils, water qualities, biodiversity etc.

Morgan then talked about the importance of understanding the subtle but very important difference between environmentalism and environmentally sustainable development. Environmentalism has primarily aimed to protect nature from the ravages of human activity. In short stop doing harm. Sustainable development however goes further and seeks to redesign systems and processes that deliver human needs and wants. To look at it another way environmentalism is a movement against pollution while sustainability is a movement towards new innovative actions and behaviours that ensure natural capital is maintained. Measures to quantify the trends in our natural capital ‘accounts’ are essential and ultimately more important than our fiscal accounts which receive so much attention. The relationship between ecology and economy is thus a critical one for farmers to embrace, and therefore sustainable development must play a central role in the future of farming in New Zealand.

This led into Morgan talking about the relationship between farm inputs and profitability. He outlined an initiative he has been involved with since 2008, along with other researchers, farmers and businesses, centred in Hawkes Bay. The aim of the project is to monitor soil health and inputs and outputs (production and financial) on a number of sheep and beef farms that had been using apparently more cost effective fertilizer mixes in their management systems than was standard practice in their districts. The results of this research, now in its fifth year,  indicates that in the farms studied productivity levels and profitability levels compare favourably with district averages compiled by MPI and Beef + Lamb, despite the fact that these farms are using significantly less inputs - particularly P and N. The project is ongoing.

Returning to the global scene Morgan noted that there is, in reality, a global ‘storm’ brewing with energy, water and food at its heart. He briefly summarised a major UK study that examined the interactions between energy, water and food demands in the face of projected population growth and climate change.  It highlighted that maintaining food supply as global populations rise, along with increasing affluence and hence demand for animal proteins, will be a truly daunting task in coming decades. However Morgan supported the view that New Zealand is geographically well placed to avoid aspects of the many challenges, such as acute water shortages.  However seasonal variation and erratic weather patterns will have major influences, so the value of water, its accessibility, storage and quality will be increasingly critical matters that communities and governments will have to continue to work together on.

Returning to local matters and our landuse systems, Morgan talked of the need for a transition from resource intensive farming systems, towards ecologically resilient resource efficient systems. Using a diagram (Fig 1) developed a decade ago * he introduced the idea of 'catchment to market systems' where farm businesses were integrated into catchments and market chains. Increasingly economic benefits are available to farmers, and their processors and marketers, who focus on customer demands (quality, environmental integrity, traceability etc) in their diverse  markets.

Morgan suggested that the greatest value for farmers working together at a catchment level was not simply to meet water quality or other environmental targets set by regulatory bodies. While meeting regulatory requirements is important, given their purpose is to achieve more sustainable farm systems, he believes  the greatest value comes when environmentally sustainable farming systems become part of an 'integrity story' that supports products in the market. Farmers must create creditable stories about their product origins. Stories that are exciting and that project images of  ecological integrity which reflect the ethos of the farm business.

The economic value of these ‘integrity stories’ should not be underestimated and Morgan reinforced this point with a practical example. One of the largest supermarket chains in Germany was becoming increasingly concerned about their ability to retain consumer trust in the integrity of their own-brand products. They decided to engage a well regarded NGO to develop a product certification system and thus an 'integrity label' that could be applied to their products. This led to a partnership with WWF-Germany, and a pilot project involving UHF milk. The resulting 'market edge' generated by the third part ‘integrity label’ has proven highly successful and led to plans for the certification of other own brand products.

Dr Williams drew his talk to a close with comments about climate change. He expressed concerns about aspects of the debates around including agricultural greenhouse gasses within climate change mitigation agreements. He said we know that agriculture is a large part of New Zealand's total greenhouse gas emissions and we also know that methane is a very different gas to CO2 in terms of management complexity. Therefore on balance Morgan believes agricultural greenhouse gasses (methane and NO2) should not be included in global agreements (but the Co2 component of food production, processing and distribution must be) given the complexity of impacts on food production. In saying this he also stressed that agricultural production systems have to become much more ecologically efficient in terms of all inputs – but particularly water. However he feels it is very important to continue robust dialogue  around climate change. Climate has to be at the centre of conversations about systems change. Not in a negative sense but from a risk management perspective. At a farm level we know we are going to have longer dry spells and bigger storm events so the question is what positive action can we to take to reduce negative impacts?

Morgan concluded with some comments on the importance of robust democracies and how catchment management groups are excellent examples of democracy in action - where issues are addressed and decisions reached through face to face discussions. The practical value of this approach was clearly demonstrated by the farmers and community leaders who spoke at the workshop. They provided evidence of how collaboration and working together can bring great rewards. At the end of the day, enduring sustainable change is not just about water quality, soil management and farm systems, it's really about what people do. People who understand and recognise the need for change and are innovative and motivated enough to make it happen.

 

 

James Barnett
Communications Manager
NZ Landcare Trust

 

 

 

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