Sir Paul Callaghan Eureka! Young Science Leaders Forum
24 September 2018
The challenge on 7 September
The challenge for participants was to consider the future of agriculture and whether we have the balance right at the moment. If not, participants were asked to consider what steps we need to take to optimise it in the future?
Among the 10 groups that reported back, there was agreement that agriculture is not currently in balance, and therefore its future is a major challenge. There was a sense that the forces acting on farmers are largely economic, and that the way agriculture is practiced currently is dominated by profitability and productivity, while environmental and social factors don’t yet carry equivalent weight.
However, participants also agreed that primary production is part of New Zealand’s cultural identity and that it should remain so. Most specific suggestions were about how to make a shift towards more sustainable agriculture – or other uses of land and marine resources – for the people who draw their livelihood from it as well as all of us, as we depend on the primary production sector in one way or another.
With primary production (including fisheries) making a significant contribution to GDP, participants saw the main challenge in increasing production while at the same time decreasing environmental impacts.
Overall, participants thought that the primary sector will need to adopt science more than it already does, diversify and embrace social change. They saw the government’s role in translating societal change, funding innovation and implementing regulation and oversight.
Summary of recommendations
Many recommendations focused on how farmers could either increase their yields without causing more damage to the environment, shift production to higher-value products to sell to elite markets, or transition to other types of landuse without losing out financially.
- New Zealand’s meat producing industry could turn into a supplier of premium markets;
- Emerging markets – honey, seafood, insect—based proteins, plant-based proteins;
- Clean meat – meat produced with reduced emissions and environmental impacts;
- Restoring agricultural land to native bush and diversifying income sources, i.e. tourism;
- Further diversification to include alternative products from the land, e.g. honey;
- Is New Zealand at risk of losing its export markets?
- Focus on niche markets instead of bulk selling in order to retain economic benefits without ecological damage;
- Should economics dictate what people are able to consume (i.e. free range is more expensive)?
- Optimisation and diversification aided by science might enable a gradual, sustainable shift to a future of sufficient production and sufficient protection of the environment;
- Even if, say, the dairy industry does its best, will that be environmentally sustainable?
- Issues of large vs small scale production – can small afford to be good?
- Do we need to change attitudes to the land – not simply a resource to exploit.
There was agreement that science, technology and innovation will be required for making current agricultural methods more sustainable as well as to explore new types of landuse or marine resources.
- Adoption of new technologies should be encouraged and farmers should have better channels to receive new information; they are more likely to accept new technologies if they come through their own communication channels;
- Encourage innovation through agriculture-specific fellowships and grants;
- Seafood (through aquaculture and fisheries) could provide more protein if done sustainably.
Greenhouse gas emissions:
- Added probiotics to shift rumen microbiome towards lower methane emissions; however, only short-term solution because of microbial resistance;
- Long-term solution in genetics – improving livestock;
- Use pasture grasses that have lower emissions, e.g. forage rape;
- Changing landuse, less reliance on dairy, move to horticulture;
- Methanogen inhibitors.
Alternative sources of protein:
- Insect-based proteins (increased food production, uses less land and fertiliser, lower greenhouse gas emissions);
- Synthetic meats;
- Plant-based proteins.
- Technologies that reduce fertiliser use;
- Vertical agriculture.
- Algae could be grown on ponds of effluent to produce feed pellets and biofuels (closed- loop system, reduced waste, less reliant on fertiliser, lower emissions, higher economic benefits; but issues of public perception, impact on farmers, potential toxicity).
Participants stressed that education and communication are crucial tools for a transition to a more sustainable agriculture.
- Need to listen to a much wider community and to bring different groups together – from farmers to private sector to citizen science groups and matauranga Māori;
- Build better relationships between a wider range of groups;
- Need for scientists to earn their social licence or political capital;
- STEM assessments should be more focused on problem-solving skills and analytical thinking;
- Schools are already running research projects into insect-based foods, should be encouraged;
- Agriculture should be taught in schools so people understand the challenge;
- Connecting population centres better with rural food producers;
- Use celebrities to promote products and farm management practices;
- Target values and beliefs in communications.
Participants felt that changes in consumer behaviour will drive some of the necessary changes in agriculture.
- Demand-led change through raised awareness of long-term consequences of some agriculture-related outcomes (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, increased fertiliser use, river pollution);
- Society putting more effort into anticipating problems rather than responding to problems (precautionary principle);
- Shift towards a circular approach to agricultural production and the economy in general;
- Higher awareness of food waste, willingness to consume/waste less;
- Shifting attitudes towards genetic engineering (first to get public buy-in likely GE wasp control); gene editing can lead to precision breeding;
- Some of the most productive land is being lost to urban development;
- Trends in vegetarian diets; what impact will that have on meat industry; viewed as a “western” trend;
- Higher awareness of animal welfare issues;
- To keep pace with population growth, food production will need to double by 2050;
- Changing perception of taste and willingness to try new sources of protein;
- Definition of “expert” is changing;
- Technology can innovate faster than economic change; opportunity to leap-frog technologies;
- Disruption plays out in every industry, agriculture is no exception;
- Consumers care about the origin of foods and sustainability across the entire supply chain;
- Should farmers be in charge of how land is used?
Impact of recommendations
Participants were asked to consider how any of their recommendations would impact on the primary production sector. Some of the suggested changes went beyond adjusting current practice and called for a more radical reset.
- Recognition that the primary sector is very different from other industries;
- Individual farms operate within specific conditions, but their product is marketed and sold by corporate organisations;
- Difficult to develop policy that works across all levels;
- Agriculture is an export business and any change needs to happen in a global context;
- Consumers are international, whatever NZ produces has to remain attractive to international markets.
Participants came up with a range of initiatives for what the government and the industry itself could do to implement change.
- Regulatory reform – to be more accessible, more willing to take experimental risks in contained environments, test things out rather than shutting the door;
- Increased funding support for innovation as well as subsidies for transition;
- Develop national strategy to coordinate government support;
- Develop sugar tax equivalent for meat;
- Emissions trading scheme to act as an incentive to reduce emissions from agriculture;
- Reward farmers who reduce environmental impacts, penalise those who don’t;
- Develop auditable farm systems and a certification process (e.g. for clean meat) to give consumer choice;
- Any farm pilots for new technologies (e.g. algae grown on effluent) will have to be subsidised to prove concept, viability, economics;
- Protect IP in green tech;
- Set target for 100% renewable energy, electric road transport;
- Increase number of agricultural sustainability awards (e.g. Ballance awards);
- Support mental health of farmers;
- Formulate a golden standard of agricultural practice and use blockchain technology to test, measure and verify;
- Have policing in place to stop supermarkets and other food producers from wasting food;
- Critical to fund more research into new ways of optimising production while protecting the environment;
- Incentivise environmental stewardship, i.e. a direct financial benefit to producers;
- Legislate for environmental stewardship;
- Invest in training, upskilling;
- Allow more migrants in for specific jobs;
- Establish national competition to encourage people to innovate in agriculture.