By Elaine Fisher

New Zealand’s land and natural resources cannot support further significant intensification, Dr John Roche chief science adviser, Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) told the 34th Farmed Landscapes Research Centre virtual workshop in February.

“We can’t continue to rely on volume growth. We need to strengthen New Zealand’s position as a world leading source of sustainable and high value food production,” he said in his address; ‘Research opportunities for Regenerating Aotearoa New Zealand’ to the workshop hosted by Massey University.

In 2020 the Government launched the plan Fit for a Better World – Accelerating our Economic Potential, to boost primary sector export earnings by $44 billion over the next decade, while protecting the environment and growing jobs.

The plan also aims to help meet climate change measures, the population’s aspiration for the quality of freshwater and to involve more New Zealanders in the primary production sector, helping to break down the urban/rural divide, he said.

All of that involves ‘Regenerating Aotearoa New Zealand’. MPI’s technical advisory group of 25 people from across different science disciplines had decided that instead of a definition of what that would be, a vision should be established.

That vision is: ‘Regenerating Aotearoa – a set of Primary Sector principles that, in isolation or collectively, result in improved outcomes for our productive landscapes, rivers, coastal and marine environments, biodiversity and natural ecosystems and animal welfare, promote health and wellbeing for humans and animals and ensure we can grow and consume our food and fibres sustainably”.

New Zealand farmers should be recognised for their ‘continuous improvements on a journey to revitalise Papatuanuku (the land)’. These include minimum-till farming, rotational grazing, fencing waterways, riparian planting, planting of native species, wetland restoration and programmes for staff training and welfare.

However, further improvements are required, and these may include increasing the number of plant species in the pasture sward. Research out of Ireland highlighted the benefits of biodiversity beyond rye grass and clover, showing that in swards which also included plantain, on average milk production increase while urinary nitrogen decreased.

‘Rye grass and white clover pasture may not be the best for New Zealand,” John said.

Consumer perceptions and behaviours provide both opportunities and challenges for NZ in finding ways to continue to produce high quality foods.

Because of the world’s growing population, the food challenge for humanity is significant.

“We must produce as much protein in the next 30 years as we have since the time of Christ – the last 2000 years. In the past when more food was needed, we had more land to produce it, but we reached peak land use in the late 1990s.”

Available productive land is likely to continue to decrease as areas which probably should not have been farmed are allowed to revert to natural states such as wetlands.

“We have a malnourishment paradox in that more than 800 million people go hungry and more than 2.1 billion are obese or overweight.” These people are suffering from a different type of malnutrition caused by a poor diet of processed foods. The Covid pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the food supply chain.

“For the first time in my lifetime there has been a shortage of food in developed countries and in New Zealand we saw gaps on our supermarket shelves.”

The pandemic has also led to significant transition in how people interact with food.

“The number of people eating out dropped, with the vast majority cooking at home. The awareness of health, wellbeing and the immune system is at an all-time high, as is interest in natural healthy foods.”

There is a new generation of consumers with a strong belief in the importance of sustainable food production.

“We may scoff at consumers and their gluten-free water and GE Free air, but they are on the next stage of a journey which we all started a long time ago.”

Research shows that these ‘2020 consumers’ are driving change.

“Internationally, sustainability-marketed products grew five times faster than conventionally marketed products and three times faster than the consumer-packaged goods market.”

Surveys show 57% of consumers are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impacts. Research also shows the majority of consumers (41%) are value-driven and want good value for money.

Purpose-driven consumers (40%) seek products and services which align with their values.

“A significant proportion of food products produced in New Zealand are sustainably marketed. We can capture those shopper segments.”

NZ is on the right path to change but John ended his address with a quote from Will Rogers; “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” (Will Rogers was one of America’s favourite cowboys known for his witty, salt-of-the earth anecdotes and pithy quotes.)