Growing for good recognises some limits

Regenerative farmer Peter Barrett (right) discusses his practice with Southland farmer Colin Matheson.
It is past time farming stepped into its future, writes Sean Connelly.

In 2004, nearly 20 years ago, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released their report on the future of farming in Aotearoa New Zealand — ‘‘Growing for Good: Intensive farming, sustainability and New Zealand’s environment’’. The report highlighted how our export economy is dependent on the success of our agricultural sector and that this success contributes to the quality of life we all enjoy.

The report also highlighted how our agricultural sector is also dependent on our natural capital — the rivers, lakes, soils, biodiversity, atmosphere and climate. It emphasised that continuing down the path of intensive agriculture would increasingly put both our economic and environmental wellbeing under threat. It recommended that we develop a new vision for the future of farming that placed greater emphasis on a systems approach that recognises environmental limits and places environmental concerns more centrally as part of our farming future.

It seems a common response by the agricultural sector to the report was to acknowledge that the environmental problems existed, but that regulation of agriculture was not the answer. Instead, the sector proposed various voluntary measures, such as the clean streams accord, to achieve better environmental outcomes, codes of practice to fence and create buffers around waterways and better use of technology to improve the efficiency of fertiliser and irrigation use. In essence, they argued that we could mitigate negative environmental outcomes without impacting on the intensity and productivity of agriculture.

Since that time, agriculture has intensified, fertiliser use has intensified, irrigation has intensified, and on the whole, environmental indicators have worsened. Synthetic nitrogen use has risen from just over 50,000 tonnes in 1990 to more than 450,000 tonnes by 2020, largely driven by the dairy boom. The ability of our land and water to cope with that injection of nutrients has been stretched beyond limits. Direct greenhouse gas emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilisers have increased more than 600% since 1990.

Ultimately, the new vision for the future of farming that was called for in 2004 has not yet materialised. If anything, we’ve hit the accelerator on further intensification. Failure to bring agriculture into balance with the environment since that time continues to place the economic benefits from agriculture and environmental quality at risk.

In the context of the recent collapse of He Waka Eke Noa — Primary Sector Climate Action Partnership, the past sounds all too familiar. The partnership was to be a world-leading attempt to put a price on agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and place our agricultural sector in a leadership position globally.

The tentative steps for reducing emissions through pricing were intended to encourage behaviour change and begin to bring agriculture more into line with environmental limits in the context of climate change. The mantra of ‘‘unworkable’’ regulations and resistance to any intervention that might disrupt the intensity of agriculture, limit productivity and shift agricultural practices, seems to have stalled any hopes of an agreement. The underlying message is that any attempt to address agricultural emissions place existing farming systems at risk.

It is a similar story that plays out in the debates about setting minimum flow levels for the Manuherikia — farming systems are so dependent on irrigation that any increase to minimum flows to benefit freshwater ecosystems places productivity and farming systems at risk.

But farming systems are already at risk. Our single largest export product by value is milk powder. At what point do we begin to question the logic of squeezing water out of rivers and aquifers, applying fertilisers to maximise grass growth, feeding and milking cows, only to squeeze the water back out of the milk before we can export it? When might we question the logic of turning a valuable food product such as milk into a low-value food ingredient? At what point do our export markets decide that it is cheaper and easier to bio-ferment milk proteins to manufacture their food products rather than relying on milk powder imports?

All indications are that the market is demanding that farming systems change. Food multinationals such as Danone and Nestle are signalling that they will be requiring improved environmental performance from their suppliers across the supply chain. In the case of Nestle, they have pledged that 50% of their key ingredients will come from farming systems that adopt regenerative farming methods by 2030. That places our farming system at risk.

The future of farming in Aotearoa will change. The question is what will drive that change. Will it be change driven by the collapse of ecosystem services and functions? Will it be change driven by global markets and global consumer awareness?

Or will it be proactive change by our agricultural sector so that farming systems are more closely aligned to environmental conditions? This would require a questioning of what we produce, where we produce it and how we produce it. It would result in a farming future where environmental balance takes precedence over increased productivity and where farming systems are integrated into the wider social and environmental context, as was called for nearly 20 years ago.

Sean Connelly is a senior lecturer in the University of Otago Department of Geography. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.