By Anne Lee

Sri Lanka’s disastrous organic farming experience should serve as a warning to New Zealand farmers that they must have a strong voice when it comes to regulation and primary sector strategies, Ngai Tahu farming and forestry general manager Will Burrett says.

While an extreme example, he says it shows what can happen with uninformed change.

Will was speaking at a future focused forum Dairy 2032 hosted by agritech company Halter at Ngai Tahu’s 6757-hectare Te Whenua Hou farming operation at Eyrewell, north of Christchurch.

Will told about 100 farmers that watching events unfold in Sri Lanka had been an “aha” moment. The economic and social impacts of a poorly informed and sudden move by the government to stop importing fertiliser and ban the use of pesticides has been swift and brutal, he says.

The decreed, whole-of-country shift to organic agriculture was reportedly carried out with little input from mainstream farmers and the country’s agricultural science sector.

Its aim, in part, was to improve Sri Lanka’s balance of payments by increasing the value of food exports and cutting fertiliser imports at a time when the country was already suffering the Covid-19 related collapse of the tourism sector.

Instead, yields of tea and rice rapidly slumped and the country has quickly swung from being a net exporter of products such as rice to becoming a net importer as it fights to feed the population.

While it’s not the only factor in the country’s spiralling economic collapse and social unrest it has arguably played a significant role. The decree has since been abandoned. Will says any change for the agricultural sector in NZ, particularly when it comes to government or local body regulatory change, must be based on a well-informed strategy and driven by farmers from behind the farm gate.

Farmers know the realities of farming and those realities need to be considered to inform change within a solid strategy that then leads to better value.

“We can’t forget our first principles of agriculture. We are marginal-cost farmers. We need to maintain our cost structures.

“We are in a really inflated commodities market at the moment which is really exciting but we have to stay true to our core.”

As to where the world is headed in the next 10 years Will pointed to indications for shifts in consumer preferences.

The somewhat controversial EAT-Lancet report in 2019 suggested that to improve human health and environmental outcomes by 2050 people in many developed countries in particular needed to move to eating a lot less red meat (up to 50% reduction) and dairy while doubling the consumption of wholegrains, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

But what does that kind of shift mean for those behind the farm gate?

There’s more talk of a farm mosaic compared with the current situation where 90% of total income is derived through one product or channel such as milk.

“What could that look like by 2032?

“Do we have the same number of cows on our farms? Are we ascribing more areas to crop and a different protein revenue?”

Technology such as Halter with its ability to direct cows to different areas of the farm or areas within paddocks may make such mosaics easier to manage.

Consumer preferences around diet, animal health and welfare and environmental concerns all needed to be considered when challenging thinking on farm system design.

“If we have a bucket of capital in our business – how are we going to allocate that capital to get a return?

“Granted some of the money we are going to spend will be on our licence to operate our current systems but there are certainly going to be other things that will provide channels of new revenue.

“We all need to be on the same page as to what that looks like and be confident the consumer will be willing to pay.”

Farmers must also be the drivers of the strategies on how to get there.

The EAT-Lancet report: