The best way to predict the future is to create it! So, let’s do that, John Roche writes.

New Zealand farmers have earned the right to be recognised as true world leaders in agricultural innovation. It’s a reputation built by generations of forward-thinkers – where we go, others follow.

I live in the Waikato, a powerhouse of agricultural innovation. Less than 10km from where I sit, Bill Gallagher and Dr Doug Phillips revolutionised rotational grazing with their development of the electric fence; Ron Sharpe revolutionised milking productivity when he created the first herringbone milking shed; Dr Pat Shannon revolutionised our breeding industry with his world-leading work in artificial insemination; and Dr Arnold Bryant and Kevin Macdonald put it all together to create the most efficient dairy production system in the world.

These are but a few of the many innovators that have made NZ farming the unbeaten world leader in producing nutritious, healthy foods.

And now we need to do it again. We have to reduce our production of methane and nitrous oxide. I mentioned in a recent opinion article that beating methane is not easy – after all, we’re battling more than 50 million years of evolution. To my disappointment, some took this as a suggestion we couldn’t do it and we should just give up. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the historical scheme of things, agriculture is a relatively young profession – we’ve only been farming for 10,000-12,000 years. Yet our grains, fruits, vegetables, and animals are hugely different today to when our ancestors yarded the first pig or sheep or scratched the ground to plant seeds.

My father harvested wheat with a thresher, a magnificent innovation in its day, but a far cry from a combine harvester. What we take for granted today did not exist a short time ago.

So, although ruminant animals have evolved to produce methane, they do not need to or, at the very least, do not need to produce as much.

We’ve bred low- and high-methane-emitting sheep – proof that methane production can be lowered. Preliminary analyses show this can also be done for dairy, beef and deer – a 10% reduction in methane with very little cost.

We’ve trialled inhibitors: chemical or natural additives that reduce methane. And we are experimenting with other types of inhibitors and even the possibility of a vaccine. Work also continues to lower the production of nitrous oxide from the urine patch.

The country is backing us to win, with almost $380 million over four years in Budget 2022 to accelerate efforts to lower agricultural emissions. A new Centre for Climate Action on Agricultural Emissions is being set up to help get new tools and technology to reduce on-farm emissions to farmers more quickly. That is expected to include a new public private partnership and discussions are well advanced. Specialist climate-focused extension services will build on existing support available, to help producers adapt on-farm practices and adopt new technology.

We think emerging technologies have some exciting potential. However, we need to make sure that any use of inhibitors is managed well, so that potential risks to food safety, plant and animal health, and trade are minimised. The sector recognises the importance of putting in place the right rules to allow this to happen.

We’ve taken the first important step toward a new regulatory regime for inhibitors – from July 18 some inhibitors have been recognised as agricultural compounds and manufacturers have two years to transition into the new rules.

We are working through a process to ensure all relevant inhibitors are included in the new regulatory regime. These changes, along with the significant investments in research and development, will stand us in good stead as we face the challenges to come.

In future, food will fall into three categories:

  • commodity food – bargain price, stock-standard, run-of-the-mill, ‘cheap’
  • molecular food – food grown through industrial fermentation or cell culture systems
  • ‘Modern Regenerative Food’ – high value, nutritious food, ethically produced with a sustainable environmental footprint.

The first is a race to the bottom of price. In the second, we hold no competitive advantage, and, again, it will be commoditised. But, with innovation in our farming system to reduce our environmental footprint, NZ agriculture could be the definition of the third.

Of course, the stakes are high but with our history of innovation and with the building blocks already in place, we are well-placed to continue leading the field.

I’m not saying this is easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it already. But in the words of Henry Ford: “I am looking for a lot of people who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done”.

  • Dr John Roche is the Chief Science Adviser at the Ministry for Primary Industries.