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The ongoing squeeze against agrichemical use and residues in exported crops has scientists looking at ways to convince plant-based food growers to take on a lighter touch.
Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) is among industry and government funders aiming to give growers more resilience in export and domestic cropping systems.
The uncertain future in agrichemical availability as well as increasing weed, pest and disease resistance has scientists rethinking strategies in a $27 million cross-sector Lighter Touch programme looking at agri-ecological approaches to protecting crops.
FAR cereals senior researcher Jo Drummond outlined some of the challenges and future solutions arable farmers were facing during a resilience forum by the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science at Lincoln University.
The plant-based food sector generates $8 billion a year from horticulture, arable cropping and wine production.
Ms Drummond said cropping farmers had a lot on their minds as a result of being time poor.
They wanted business as usual or if changes were coming, they should be easy.
"They have become accustomed to the high input, high output model that is traditionally very successful.
"So if we think about a licence to operate or if we think about growing a profitable crop managing resistance and ... if we throw in climate change and weather events it becomes a challenge for our growers.
"They don’t often have the headspace because they are thinking about so many different things."
Farmers often relied on new agrichemical actions to save them, but this was becoming less likely.
They were so tied to their systems and financially constrained they were struggling to change voluntarily, even though it would be harder for them if changes were regulated.
Nowadays it took far longer for new agrichemical active ingredients to be registered and come on the market and they were much more expensive.
New Zealand was a small market and usually had to wait until after other countries gained access to products.
Growers could also lose access if an agrichemical was de-registered overseas.
Big thinking and big support was needed, she said.
Ms Drummond said agrichemcial resistance was dynamic as weeds, pests and diseases were changing all the time.
"Increasingly, consumers are more aware what is happening in their food space and they’re asking questions and they’re asking us to have greater sustainability.
"They don’t want to have the chemical footprints they might have had previously. What that means is we are increasingly asking growers to grow more with fewer tools."
Resilient systems needed to be built so growers could remain productive and have access to a "shrinking arsenal".
Going cold turkey would mean losing at least 30% of productivity from pest, weeds and diseases and a worst case scenario of a total crop loss.
Farmers were already working towards resilience by growing more on less land and with fewer chemicals. From the 1950s when multi-site fungicides were introduced to the present day, there are 100-fold fewer active ingredients going on crops.
Ms Drummond said that might not be enough and different strategies might be required.
Crop protection strategies individually were quite helpful, but real benefits would come when they were "layered up" on farms.
They included mechanical options mainly for weed control, reducing plant defects through improved breeding and biological controls such as natural predators preying on insect pests.
Researchers were looking at encouraging plant defence mechanisms, particularly in the face of climate change.
Diverse ecological systems on farms were also being encouraged as they were more resilient. That could include crop rotations, cover crops or having beneficial insect populations through biodiversity plantings in less productive areas.
"Farmers always love [precision-ag] and again it’s an opportunity that’s still developing. The digital tech needs to monitor and optimise processes. Finally, ... chemistry still plays a really important role in this puzzle, so it’s about optimising those strategies and bringing them on board and bringing them together."
Some growers were already taking on the change, but the main barrier for others was risk.
At some stage they would have to take the plunge. To be convinced, they needed to see data relevant to them, their location and cropping system and a financial result — otherwise, they would not change, she said.
However, they had no choice if agrichemicals were banned from new rules, new policy or market demand.
"The challenge is consumers generally are going to have an expectation you are going to do those things.
"You will not be paid any more to do it, whether we are exporting or whether we are domestic, like they might in other countries."
Crop protection practices with a lighter touch were going to be neutral to positive for farm incomes and crop yields apart from mechanical weeding which would be negative as it had climate change impacts.
Agri-ecology could reduce input costs which sometimes helped to increased profitability and maintain crop yields, but the jury was still out whether it would increase product prices, she said.