The future of food
Most of New Zealand’s lowland areas are now devoted to food production. How we produce food for consumption, sale and export continues to shape our landscape and lives, but the 90 per cent of New Zealanders who live in cities have little contact with those processes and the social and environmental considerations they create.
Can farmers improve yields and use resources more efficiently? Can consumers reconnect with the land and farm practices to make more informed choices and reduce waste? What is the future of our food?
The late May evening my wife and I went to Coco’s Cantina for dinner, it was appallingly cold, probably the coldest night of the year. I wore a long black double-breasted wool coat, which I call ‘The Aucklander’ because it so obviously marks me as a stereotypical city person, which I am—lacking DIY skills, any sort of self-sufficiency, and any idea of what it takes to survive without a supermarket within easy driving distance.
We were at one of Auckland’s best restaurants—a place we would otherwise almost certainly not be at—primarily because it provided a neat narrative starting point from which I could launch an investigation into the problems of food, its production and consumption, its impacts on our land, society and environment, and what needs to be done to fix all that.
But we were there for other reasons too. We were out without our 10-month-old daughter for the first time in a long time. It was a chance to be away from a home that had been so completely taken over by baby needs that it was sometimes hard to remember we had a relationship beyond that baby, although we hadn’t been married even two years.
Also, my wife had just that day completed a stressful work project, and the following day would mark the publication of a long and difficult magazine article I had written. It was also a chance to be in the middle of the city, surrounded by the people who fill it, who make it work, who we rub shoulders with every day, who help to create the economy that helps to sustain us—all those connections.
Coco’s Cantina is famed for its great food, particularly its excellent steaks, but also for its commitment to doing good. Sustainability is one of the restaurant’s key goals. It’s no joke that the wait staff wear shirts that read ‘Be Kind’. They care for people and their environment and they go to great lengths to ensure everyone they work with does too.
So this one meal combined, at least, some elements of each of the following: work, celebration, social communion, release, pleasure, commitment to ideals, and finally nutrition.
That is a lot to demand of a meal, but that is what we do with food—invest it with meaning and significance that go far beyond its role in keeping us alive and healthy. It is why we care about it so deeply: food is not just calories, it helps to define who we are. In a literal sense, it is who we are.
Coco’s Cantina is halfway down Karangahape Road, in almost the exact centre of our biggest city’s concrete heart. It couldn’t feel further from the swathes of sheep-and cow-covered grasses that help to fill its plates. But of course, it’s not so far.
As New Zealanders, we are all closely connected to those grasses.
More than half of our country’s income comes from agriculture, so economically at least, its impact couldn’t be more significant. But nearly 90 per cent of us now live in cities. How many of us know what happens in those pastures and how their produce gets to our plates? And how many of us care? And how important is it that we do?
Agriculture is never far from the public eye in New Zealand, but it’s easy to avoid thinking about when you live in the city and your only consistent connection to it is through the distant medium of cold, crowded suburban supermarkets.
My plan, starting that night at Coco’s, and over the following weeks, was to reestablish a connection to that food by tracing what I ate back to the paddocks it came from, to find the people who worked those fields, and attempt to understand how profoundly what they do has shaped our land and society, the value it has provided, the damage it has done, and whether it has a future.
Zanna and I clinked wine glasses across the red-and-white checked tablecloth, smiled at each other and took our first sips.
As I drank, I looked down the menu, and wondered where in the country the words ‘Lamb chops w/ herb & nut crust’ and ‘Coco’s Beef cooked w/ chef’s veges’ would take me, and how they would change the way I thought about our food.
It took a week or so to track down the suppliers of the potatoes that became the excellent, thick agria chips that came with my Coco’s Beef.
I called Chris Nicholson at Hinemoa Quality Producers of Pukekawa, just south of Auckland, one weekday afternoon and asked him if I could visit. The next morning, I was sitting in a little office in his packing shed with him, his wife, Vikki, and father John.
John, 76, who still works on the farm every day, wore his Counties rugby jacket and offered me biscuits. “That will help you write better,” he said, passing me a milk arrowroot.
Afterwards, he told me how much he had enjoyed talking and reminiscing about his years on the farm, which he had taken over from his father, who had run sheep and beef but converted to potatoes and onions after an outbreak of facial eczema in the sheep.
Chris, who now runs the farm, drove me around the property in his truck and showed me points of interest. At 200 hectares, it is considered a medium-sized operation. As well as conventional fertiliser, they use mushroom compost and chicken manure. They use silt traps to prevent soil and nutrients escaping the property into the nearby Waikato River. Seven years ago, they built a dam, which has had a positive impact on yield.
It all sounded great and positive, but much of what he said was beyond me. I am no expert, and at this point I was hardly even a novice. I didn’t know what was important in this debate. What did any of this tell me about what I—or we as a country—should be doing about our food system?
It looked strangely idyllic. A family working together across the generations, a few people working in a packing shed, surrounded by large field bins full of potatoes, and outside, the vast fields, some of which were mounded into long semi-cylinders of soft dirt, under which lurked great handfuls of potatoes.
Before I left, Chris and Vikki gave me a booklet from the Waikato Farm Environment Awards 2012. There they were, on the front page, supreme award winners. Judges wrote that the couple represented “what’s great about New Zealand farmers”, having developed a successful business while enhancing environmental values.
If potatoes were a problem, I couldn’t tell.
But everyone knows potatoes are a side issue. You don’t have to be a big watcher of Country Calendar to know that meat is our main concern: culturally, culinarily and environmentally. Like its bigger, more controversial cousin dairy, meat production brings with it the belching, methane- and nitrous oxide-emitting animals that are the biggest contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, at around 30 per cent.
The production of dairy has been much talked about. It is our biggest export earner, with export receipts growing 460 per cent between 1990 and 2012. There has, not surprisingly, been a rush to convert farms from sheep and beef to dairying and to cash in on a booming international market that has made harvesting the ‘white gold’ three times more profitable per hectare than other uses, according to Fonterra.
Dairying’s impact on our waterways and atmosphere are well documented. One notable critic, Mike Joy of Massey University, has referred to two New Zealands: the clean, green country above 400 metres elevation and the “destruction zone” below 400 metres, which he says has been driven by intensive dairying.
It is sometimes hard to look beyond dairy in this country, because its scale and environmental impact are so massive and the media attention so intense, but we have to look past it, because there are broader problems than just those caused by milk production, and the longer they go unaddressed, the more serious they get.
The intensification of all types of farming, with more inputs being used to grow more from the same area of land, has led to a range of concerns over the past few decades. The landmark 2004 report Growing for Good from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment details a few of them: loss of soil fertility, loss of biodiversity, dependence on fossil fuels, the viability of family farms, the impact on human health and the quality of life in rural communities.
Agriculture is the biggest contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, producing almost half the total output, and our emissions are high by world standards. We have the world’s highest per capita methane emission rate, at around six times the global average, and sheep are the country’s greatest single methane-emitters. Methane has a global warming potency 21 times greater than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide, released by all kinds of livestock, is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has described the livestock sector as “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from global to local”.
The production of meat, it turns out, is also relatively inefficient compared to other protein sources. Which is to say, it takes more inputs to produce each kilogram of meat than it does to produce, say, fish, eggs or, for that matter, milk. And red meat is comfortably the most inefficient.
According to The Economist, meat accounts for a sixth of the world’s calorific intake but uses about a third of its crop land, water and grain. This makes it both a drain on the Earth’s resources and less available than alternative food sources to feed a growing population, expected to hit nine billion by 2050.
The New Zealand case is slightly different because our livestock is raised substantially on grass rather than the grain used widely in some other countries, but the challenge of reducing its environmental impact still exists, particularly in the face of an industry that has pushed harder and harder to increase its output over recent decades. Academics have expressed concern that the recent intensification of New Zealand farming is simply not sustainable.
But meat has long formed the basis of our most important meals in this country, its production and export are important parts of our identity and economy, and its consumption is increasing around the globe as wealth rises in the developing world. Finally, let’s not be silly about this, it is delicious.
The issues outlined above are, by and large, not things I explicitly knew when I ordered the ‘Lamb chops w/ herb & nut crust’ and ‘Coco’s Beef cooked w/ chef’s veges’, but they are things I wasn’t especially surprised about when I discovered them. There has long been a sense of unease about agriculture in this country, particularly among city folk like me whose understanding comes largely from hyperbolic media reports.
Both the lamb and the beef I ate at Coco’s Cantina were sold by Auckland-based premium meat supplier Neat Meat, which sourced the lamb from meat processors Land Meat, of Wanganui, and the T-bone from meat processors Taylor Preston in Wellington. That much was relatively easy to discover.
But where were the animals farmed and how serious were the environmental problems they were causing? How did they live and how did the farmers who raised them live? How did those people look after themselves, their families and communities, and the economy on which this country rests? How would things be for them in the future? And how would things be for us, as a result of what they did?
It turns out that finding the answers to such things, even in a world where people care about these issues more than ever and in which the answers to these questions are critical to our future, is very, very difficult.
The fact that we are a country built on grassland farms and sustained by the raising of animals on those farms is not an accident of nature or geography, but a result of systematic and sustained effort over generations.
In the mid 1800s, about half of New Zealand was covered by rainforest. By 1930, half of the forest was gone, along with large chunks of the tussock lands that had covered much of the South Island. Only 15 per cent of the country’s original wetlands remained; the rest had been drained.
Onto that landscape we loaded cows and sheep, and then developed an economy based on their outputs, which in spite of much talk about alternatives, remain our economic backbone today.
Weighed against the impacts of the agricultural change wrought on our land is the fact that so many of New Zealand’s exports are agricultural products. It is critical that we don’t undermine this income because it won’t be easily replaced, but it is also critical that we don’t erode the land that provides it and so much else of value to us.
“[The agri-food space] is sort of the engine room of New Zealand’s wellbeing in monetary terms and ecological terms,” says former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Morgan Williams, who was responsible for the Growing for Good report. “Agriculture has the potential to stuff our landscape, and agriculture is also a core part of our economic landscape.”
Damaris Coulter from Coco’s Cantina gave me a contact for Tim Eriksen from Neat Meat, who gave me contacts for the companies that had processed the meat but told me that tracing it from there back to the farm would be “nigh on impossible”.
“We can trace it down to the plant that it’s processed out of, but it’s very hard to get it down,” Eriksen said. “We’re working on that at the moment. Even our top-end, grass-fed beef, I couldn’t tell you what farm that’s from. And if we can’t, no one can.
“We’ve tried our hardest. It does bother me, but you have to be realistic.”
Neat Meat is struggling to get enough New Zealand meat to supply its customers.
In 1992, Eriksen said, there were 75 million lambs in New Zealand. At the end of last year, there were 17 million. A few decades ago, meat was our biggest export earner, ahead of dairy. Now, Neat Meat is being forced to investigate importing Australian meat as an option.
When that happens, traceability becomes secondary. “Not even secondary,” Eriksen said. “We just want product.”
So I was a little surprised when I called Taylor Preston, which supplied my T-bone to Neat Meat, and was told that they would, in fact, be able to find the farm it came from: they just needed a copy of the barcode from the box it came in. Coco’s no longer had it and Eriksen couldn’t find it, but eventually he sent me a picture of a label from a different box and wrote: “That’s the same product you ate, just different date.”
This was still some distance ahead of what was happening with Land Meat, the suppliers of the improbably delicious lamb chops I had eaten at Coco’s. I had left multiple messages for the contact Tim Eriksen gave me, without reply.
Finally, he called to say he had traced the lamb from a panel supplied by Neat Meat back to the farm it came from. Again, it probably wasn’t the meat I ate or even the farm it came from, but that wasn’t a great concern—I had long ago given up on the possibility of that. I was just interested in the theoretical: could it be traced?
The fact he had been able to trace this particular package of meat back to a single farm seemed to be mostly a matter of luck. The label Neat Meat had supplied him identified the time that the meat contained within had been processed, and it just happened that there was only lamb from one farm in the plant at the time. If that lamb had entered the plant one hour later, he said, lamb from two other farms would also have been on site and nobody would have been able to say for sure which was in that container.
He told me he would have to check to see whether he could put me in touch with the farmer who produced this lamb, and would come back to me, but he never did, and that told me all I really needed to know about the traceability of meat in New Zealand.
This is not to say that we as consumers are always so divorced from the farms supplying our food. On the shores of Lake Taupo, farmer Mike Barton is using the idea of traceability as a money-making tool.
Taupo was one of the first places in the country where farmers had to deal with nutrient limits, and that effectively meant that the amount of beef that Barton could produce was capped at 2004 levels, while his costs continued to rise steadily—48 per cent over the following nine years.
The only way to remain profitable was to increase the value of the meat, and that’s exactly what he did, by developing a production process and a narrative that allowed people to know about what they’re eating, to feel good about eating it, and to feel comfortable paying more to eat it.
“It demonstrates an important point,” Barton told Beef & Lamb New Zealand last year. “It has allowed us to test the concept that people are prepared to pay a premium to protect the environment, in this case the lake. It was about getting the story right, the verification process in place to support that the beef was actually grown in that way, and the processing and ageing consistent.
“We started in 2011 in three restaurants and asked to be put on the menu as the most expensive option. Over three months in one top-end restaurant, Taupo Beef at $42.50 outsold the Angus eye fillet at $38.50 by four to one. It’s gone from strength to strength ever since and we can’t meet demand.”
It’s a different way of thinking about the problem of food, and of meat in particular: that if the costs of environmental protection can be shared between producer and consumer, they can be better dealt with.
“Consumers tend to blame farmers, but they need to be prepared to pay for farmers protecting the environment,” Barton said. “The farmer is partly at fault, though, as we’ve never given the consumer the information or the option.”
When I first called Tony Partridge (the farmer who supplied the T-bone I probably didn’t eat at Coco’s, but might have done if I had eaten there a week or two later) he was surprised to hear his beef was being eaten in Auckland, which I thought was a good illustration of how the connection between producers and consumers of food is broken in both directions.
When he bought his beef cattle farm at Sedgemere, south of Christchurch, 28 years ago, it was one of many such farms in the area. Now it is alone, surrounded by more-profitable dairying and cropping operations.
He thought about converting to dairy years ago, and says if his sole aim was to make money, he would have done so. But beef cattle is what he knows. His father and grandfather were cattle traders and he says he grew up walking behind cattle and working with cattle and it’s all he ever wanted to do.
Partridge has no debt, and he’s also a stock agent, so the fact his farm doesn’t produce much of a profit is not a big deal to him. He only maintains it because he knows he will be the last beef cattle farmer to own it. A big dairy farmer nearby has offered him increasing amounts of cash, but he has never been tempted.
“I should probably have sold and bought a bigger place,” he says, “but I knew the buck was going to stop with me.”
His Simmental cattle stud used to be one of 26 in Canterbury, but is now the only one.
“The stud hasn’t really been profitable, but there’s another side of that—we’ve met and enjoyed the friendship of people throughout those years and are still doing so. To me, it isn’t the money so much as it is the lifestyle and what I know and enjoy doing.”
He is now surrounded by dairy farms and says he sees many of them “putting enormous pressure on the animals and enormous pressure on the land”.
“Mid Canterbury’s full of light stone country. Without the water and without the nitrogen, it wouldn’t grow grass.
“I had an option years ago of buying some of those places. They’ve got massive acreages because there was no water on them at the time. I could have paid $200 or $300 an acre, maybe up to $500. Now they’re making $20,000 an acre because they’re banging down these massive wells. They’re watering stones, with the help of a little bit of nutrient, making grass grow, and then running hundreds of cows to pay the bills.”
Why is farming important? To make money for farmers and for the economy as a whole, and to help feed a growing world population… but also for other reasons that are just as important, if less newsworthy: because it sustains community and family and because it gives farmers a sense of purpose and an identity.
“I didn’t see the Depression,” Partridge said, “but I had it instilled into me. I had two grandfathers lose land, and I grew up believing that you bought and handled what you could afford and what you could service, and I stayed that way, probably to my detriment.
“I could have been worth a good few more million today but that wouldn’t have made me any better. We’ve enjoyed doing what we’re doing. I’ve done a lot for others, be they farmers or lifestylers, for very little reward, but I’ve got to see them progress. And there’s as much to that as there is money in the bank.”
Partridge and his wife are on the committee of the local hall—the centrepiece of the small community since the school closed years ago—and he said that if the two of them were to leave, along with the committee chairman, the community would probably fold up. “We’ve lost our community because all those small farmers that were around here and participated in the community have all gone. They’ve all been amalgamated.”
Partridge said one businessman has bought up around 445 hectares in the local area, on which he has six or seven houses, all occupied by either workers or renters who don’t take part in the community. It’s not just happening in Canterbury, he said, but also further afield.
Partridge won the crossbred class in the Steak of Origin competition this year with his Charolais heifer mated with an Angus bull. It was his third attempt at the competition, which recognises the country’s best-tasting beef.
“Through life you have aims,” he said. “I think everybody should have something to aim at.”
The further I got into this story, the more difficult it became to know where I stood. Current methods of farming are damaging the environment, and meat plays a significant part in that. But talking to people like Tony Partridge—good people who care about their communities, the land, their animals and produce, and who are struggling to hold on in the face of the onslaught from dairy—I found it hard not to care about them and what they do.
The more I tried to disentangle the issues and find a reasonable entry point into the debate, the more it kept coming back to a straight shootout between two sides: ecologists yelling at farmers and farmers bridling at the idea of being told what to do. The dichotomy was summed up in a report last year in which Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright wrote that New Zealand faced a “classic economy versus environment dilemma”.
In media discussions and scientific papers, farmers, if they are mentioned at all, are generally reduced to two parts—their economic contributions and environmental costs—which may be part of the problem.
More than once during the time I spent with Professor Henrik Moller of the University of Otago, he said something like, “I don’t know if this is too philosophical”, then launched into some intense and highly personal philosophy. He would muse on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or on the notion of what it means to be tangata whenua, to be born, to put down roots and to be buried in the land.
Moller is a professor at Otago’s Centre for Sustainability and an ecologist on the Agricultural Research Project on Sustainability (ARGOS), a government-funded joint venture between Otago, Lincoln University, the AgriBusiness Group and others, which aims to provide a better understanding of the environmental, social and economic sustainability of farming in New Zealand.
Formerly the leader of the environmental sustainability dimension of ARGOS, Moller is now working on the New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard, which will help farmers to identify how sustainable their practices are, enable them to make better decisions about sustainability, and give consumers better insight into them. In other words, it’s about providing transparency and accountability—exactly the things that had been missing in my project to trace my meal.
Since he seemed to be about as connected to issues of agriculture, food and sustainability as it was possible to be without having some prejudice or agenda, I asked Moller if he would take me to a couple of farms and act as a sort of high-level guide, pointing out some of the issues in a way I couldn’t see for myself.
Moller brought a large grocery bag of goodies for the farmers and their families on the farms we visited. In handing them over to Jill and Robert Reid, owners of the first farm, he apologised for doing “a man’s shop”, which he said had taken him only about 8.5 minutes because he was running late at the supermarket.
Within hours of leaving the second farm at the end of the day, he had sent an email to both families involved, inviting them to join him and his wife for a drink and nibbles at his home—address enclosed.
“Thanks heaps for your hospitality today,” he wrote, “your generous allocation of your time and knowledge, and especially your trust. It was very nourishing for me meeting people like you makes me realise what my research is really about.”
In other words, Moller is somebody who cares deeply about not just the land and environment, but also the people who work on it, which is a viewpoint that is easy to miss in this discussion about greenhouse gases, nutrient loads and biodiversity. It’s critical to discuss those issues, obviously, but it’s equally critical to discuss the lives of the people most affected by them.
I told Moller about my project and we discussed the issue of traceability, specifically the problems I’d faced in trying to find where the meat I’d eaten at Coco’s Cantina had come from.
“What you found with your culinary experience in Auckland,” he said, “is that [traceability] is more theoretical than possible. That’s a very important issue. Suddenly we have dislocated and put a great distance between where food and fibre is produced and where it’s consumed, and that’s the ultimate breakdown in the connection.
“In the old days, you’d be able to get all your food and fibre locally and you would be able to observe and you would understand the ethics of the people. These days, in the world food and fibre exchange system, you’re half a planet away from where it’s produced and this sets up all of the issues about care and responsibility.”
The ultimate goal of the Sustainability Dashboard is to connect world food systems, allowing conscientious consumers to find out where their food was grown, and if it was produced in an ethical, sustainable manner—whether that happened down the road or on the other side of the planet.
“We need to think imaginatively,” Moller said, “about ways of reconnecting across that distance.”
He seemed almost excited by the difficulties I had faced—what they said about the problem and what needed to be done to fix it. It was validation for what he was doing.
“You wanted to know where your meal in downtown Auckland came from,” he said, “and you couldn’t find out, so what chance, unless we get really innovative, has someone in the UK to figure out whether they’re making ethical choices in buying New Zealand?”
Moller had enlisted the help of Murray Harris, a local farming identity and consultant, responsible, among other things, for coordinating the regional farm awards.
The first farm Harris took us to, Verterburn, was 1391 impossibly picturesque hectares of sheep and beef farm set on deeply rolling hills at Outram, half an hour or so outside Dunedin.
Harris had said the wind chill could get pretty severe, so I brought the only warm coat I possessed—The Aucklander—in spite of the shame I felt about the prospect of wearing it in front of hardened country people. I imagined them standing knee-deep in snowdrifts wearing stubbies and light windbreakers, and laughing at my city softness, but when we climbed out of Moller’s car at the Verterburn farmhouse and into the milky late-morning light of a mild southern day, it was clear, to my relief, that I could leave the coat in the car.
Robert and Jill Reid, Verterburn’s owners, won a farm environment award in 2010 for sustainable resource management, with judges noting their passion for, and commitment to, long-term sustainability. In submitting their entry form for the awards, the Reids had written of their approach to sustainability:
“This includes things such as enhancing environmental quality and our quality of life, working within the parameters dictated by nature, being financially sound, and farming a pastoral system that can continue for generations.”
The more I read that sentence, the more I liked it and liked the Reids for writing it. It showed how much they cared about the land, but it was also unsentimental and pragmatic. I particularly liked the guiding ethic reflected in the line “working within the parameters dictated by nature”, and the kicker, “a pastoral system that can continue for generations”.
What had I ever created—could I conceive of creating—that would last for generations? To even think of it is an act of generosity: to strive after a goal that will benefit the lives of people born decades or even centuries after you’re gone, who you will never know, who probably won’t even be related to you?
“Where we’re going to have a problem,” Robert Reid said, as we sat around his dining-room table, looking out his home’s glass frontage across the open hills of Verterburn, “is that the decisions being made in Wellington have no relationship to what’s happening here on the land.”
“Production isn’t the issue,” said Reid, “it’s dealing with the rapidly accumulating compliance cost of permits and new regulations. That’s going to be his”—he nodded in the direction of his son Andrew, who has recently taken over management of the farm—“biggest challenge in the next 25 years. Not production, because we’ve got it. It’s this nonsense.”
The people drafting policy don’t understand or prioritise the issues at stake, he added. “The rural communities’ aspirations are outvoted by Auckland. If the priority becomes you or Auckland, it’s Auckland, because that’s where the votes are.”
“Eighty-seven per cent of voters live in towns, but over sixty per cent of our nation’s bills are paid for by farmers,” said Moller, an imbalance which—he suggests puts the practice of sustainable faming at risk. “It’s got to come from the top,” agreed Reid. “Politicians have to stand up and say it has to stop.”
New Zealand seems in safe hands when you meet people such as Robert and Jill Reid, Tony Partridge or Mike Barton, but not everybody who is farming shares their values. So what do you do with the ones who don’t?
Moller presented some options: Regulation, but, as much research has shown, the imposition of rules can be counterproductive and vexatious even for those who take environmental sustainability seriously. It could build resistance and cause people who feel put-upon by the agendas of others to go in the opposite direction.
Then there are market-led pathways of providing incentives and rewards to draw people into voluntarily improving land use, in which farming families are still able to make their own decisions. Eco-verification and accreditation, for instance, allow farmers to sell not just products, but also a story of sound ethical and environmental production, values that may command a price premium. It’s what Mike Barton has done with Taupo Beef and it’s what the Sustainability Dashboard is aiming to provide on a much broader scale.
There are industry-led pathways. For example, Fonterra’s much talked about policy of not picking up farmers’ milk unless they follow protocols, such as correctly fencing their waterways.
Then there is community-led change groups coming together and incentivising change: “As long as you buy into your local community, you listen to what the local community wants and that starts to change your own actions,” Moller said. “You can get very rapid change if a community starts to say, ‘We’re going to clean up our waterways, or we collectively have to do something about farmer Brown down the road who’s soiling our collective nest’.”
That is the fastest catalyst for change, Moller said, but the way to get it to last is to have individual farmers take stewardship over their land, to focus on the sort of multigenerational benefit of their particular patch espoused by the Reids.
“You incentivise first and get voluntary processes,” Moller said. “The question becomes about how much you mop up the tail of those who don’t pull for a collective decision. In the end—I suppose this is getting a bit philosophical—for me, sustain-ability is at its heart a social contract. I think that all the sustainability issues are around a tension between individual opportunity and group benefit.”
Triggering change involves a fine balance between individual rights, responsibilities and opportunities, and the collective ethic of caring for the land. Such a social contract requires a high degree of collaboration, of trust and open communication. The problem we have in New Zealand at the moment, said Moller, is that the types of discussions we’re having are often based around confrontation and finger-pointing.
“If there’s one overarching lesson,” he said, “it’s that you can’t parachute in sustainability as a belief or solution. I think it has to grow from within and it’s about not alienating and not trying to ram it.”
Moller has conducted years’ worth of scientific research into agricultural sustainability. His work as a leader in the ARGOS project over a decade has already yielded abundant data from more than 100 farms and laid the foundation for another 20 years of research. But the striking thing about him is how little of that hard science he tried to convey to me in the time we spent together, especially in comparison to what might be called ‘soft’ ideas such as communication, respect, care for others.
It seemed to me that he felt our problem in New Zealand is less about knowing the right thing to do and more about figuring out the right thing together, and the communication and respect that grow through that process.
It’s the sort of thing you might expect from someone who apologises for not spending enough time shopping for the unexpected, oversized bag of groceries he brings to strangers’ homes and who sends emails telling those same people he felt nourished by the time he spent with them. But it’s still a little unexpected coming from a scientist, particularly one engaged in a debate as polarising as that over agriculture.
The more I listened to him excuse himself for being too philosophical, the more I began to believe that maybe we should all be doing a bit more of it.
“In this big debate,” Moller said as we drove away, “the environmental lobby group is lambasting and undermining the mana and confidence and pride of farmers by finger-pointing, instead of respectfully recognising their contributions and their knowledge and their passion.”
While problems should be acknowledged, a more successful approach would involve a mutually respectful exchange of each other’s values and processes, said Moller. “If we can set up those conversations and understand what we have in common, then we have the beginnings of a much stronger social contract about living and working in New Zealand.”
Internationally, there are some broadly agreed-upon solutions to the environmental and humanitarian problems agriculture poses.
Tara Garnett, one of the principal investigators in the University of Oxford programme on the future of food and leader of the Food Climate Research Network at the university, proposes four things that need to be done on a global scale: produce more food on existing land, reduce food waste, address inequities within the food system and change diets.
In May this year, National Geographic proposed the following: freeze agriculture’s footprint, grow more on the farms we’ve got, use resources more efficiently, shift diets, and reduce waste.
In an article in the journal Science in 2010, the following solutions were proposed: closing the yield gap (between the world’s most successful and least successful farms), sustainable intensification, increasing production limits, reducing waste, changing diets, expanding aquaculture.
Bruce Campbell, chief operating officer at Plant & Food Research, cites three things that need to happen: lift productivity while lightening the footprint on the environment; reduce waste; adjust people’s expectations of what they need to eat.
But if there is broad agreement about many of the things that need to be done to feed the world while looking after the planet, there is also much specific disagreement. Take ‘changing diets’, for instance.
“From a straight environmental perspective,” says Stewart Ledgard of AgResearch, “usually a kilogram of protein produced as a soybean or lentil or some product like that is more efficient to produce than a kilogram of protein as milk, which is generally more efficient than producing a kilogram of beef or lamb.”
But much of New Zealand’s topography is steep, and we have a high rainfall, which makes it very difficult to produce cereals and protein-type crops, and ideal for grassland.
“It’s often easy to say that we should only eat non-meat sources that are efficiently produced and that would greatly reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions on a global basis. But there is a limit to how we can actually grow that type of land,” says Ledgard.
Furthermore, there is the trade-off between the need to feed an ever-expanding world population and the stresses that need can place on a land already stretched by intensive agriculture.
“Globally, there is a humanitarian crisis,” says Moller. “We can do our bit there. Nevertheless, that will be harder on the land, so there’s a wider debate about land sharing and land sparing.”
Land sparing starts from the view that it is possible to have farm landscapes that are pushed hard and in some sense degraded environmentally, if a focus is simultaneously put on other areas where land is conserved. Land sharing, by contrast, works from the idea that the same land provides both the agricultural and ecological benefits. There are many good arguments for a stronger land-sharing approach. For instance, increased biodiversity can lead to natural pest control and therefore lower costs. Shelter belts help to increase productivity and reduce lambing losses. It’s not just ecology for ecology’s sake, as if that wasn’t a strong enough argument; it’s also economically powerful.
“New Zealand has a big opportunity producing high-quality food and fibre with good environmental and social credentials, and selling that to high-end markets around the world,” says Moller.
“Then the pressure on the environment and social and natural capital will not be reduced by producing more and more, but producing less.”
We already know a lot about what needs to be done. The problem we face is developing a system that allows us to do it.
In 2004, the report Growing for Good said: “It will not be enough to focus on change at the on-farm/ local level only. Many powerful drivers originate from beyond the farm and will need to be addressed. A broad systemic approach is required—one that defines goals, removes barriers and develops strategies to support a transition to more sustainable agriculture within local and global environmental, economic, political and market contexts.”
It suggested a redesign of the system at farm, regional, national and international level: for instance, government-led costing and “supporting” of on-farm changes, and international trade rules that support environmentally sustainable outcomes.
After our visit to Robert and Jill Reid’s farm at Outram, Moller had brought up the fact that we work, in this country, from the assumption that if sustainability was really important, the market would take care of it. That is naive, he said, and unfair.
“Land management demands a long view, and markets are riding short-term waves and fluctuations. Markets don’t operate by social contract. They operate by individual choices and decisions for individual gain. They can be a useful mechanism but are never enough by themselves.
“We continually seek efficiency, and efficiency is important for sustainability,” says Moller. “But we haven’t grasped what [the report’s authors] put before us—to think about redesigning the way we grow our food and fibre in a fundamental way.”
If I think about what I expected to happen in the days and weeks following my meal at Coco’s Cantina, I probably had an idealised vision in which I would be passed quickly and carefully back through the supply chain to the farms from which my meal came.
I pictured myself standing in paddocks, next to gruff farmers, looking at their open fields, maybe patting the muscular flanks of a cow or two that looked ripe for the eating, feeling some physical and emotional connection to my meal, which would inform all the abstract thought, science and hard data about agriculture and its impacts.
But what I discovered instead was how broken the connection is between us and what we eat, between city and country, between those of us who earn our country’s living and those of us who vote, and that, until these connections are fixed, the solutions to the wider problems of our food system outlined in Growing for Good will not easily be found.
As a city dweller, I know it’s easy to think of farmers as some distant ‘others’ or, more realistically, to not think of them at all. It’s strange in a way, because it’s hard to think of something that connects us more completely than food, which is so important to us culturally, economically, socially.
This distancing is a reasonably recent development. Robert Reid’s son Andrew mentioned that this year’s televised Young Farmer of the Year contest was scheduled at 11.40 on a Saturday night. In the 1980s, it was on during prime time, and it was live. “It seems like a small thing,” Andrew Reid said.
The more I reflected on the issues around agriculture, the more Henrik Moller’s comment about 87 per cent of us living in towns and 60 per cent of our incomes coming from farms kept coming back to me.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a farmers’ market in central Auckland. We bought some vegetables from the people who had grown them, got some cheeses from people who had made them. We felt good about these purchases, not necessarily because we knew a great deal about how the food had been made but because we assumed that the people who stood behind them did so because they were proud of them, and that is not an assumption I make when I am standing, say, in front of the faceless products in the supermarket deli.
There’s also something that’s just nice about making a connection with these people, this exchange that is now so rare but was once the only way we acquired food.
These are the kinds of connections that nourish us and that help to make us more aware of how our food is produced, the people involved, and the challenges inherent in it.
It comes down to this: if I were back at Coco’s Cantina tomorrow and they were offering a T-Bone that was from Tony Partridge’s farm in Sedgemere, or a lamb rack from Robert Reid’s farm, I would happily pay more for it, and I could be pretty sure that, knowing where it came from, the care with which it was raised, the people behind it and the values behind them, it would be worth far more to me than the extra dollars I paid for it.
Obviously that wouldn’t put an end to the issues facing agriculture in New Zealand, but it would be a good start.