In my last blog I made the case that farming as we know it faces imminent disruption. If we want to face up to the disruption of synthetic meat and milk and achieve our environmental goals, and we need urgent investment into alternative ways of farming and innovative land uses. This needs to happen quickly, before dairy faces the sort of disruption wool had in the 1960s. In other words, we need innovation – and fast.
How could our Government help get that moving quick smart? Here's three ideas: use the money set aside for Sustainable Land Use, change how our research system favours work led by “Big Ag” companies and change Landcorp’s mandate.
The Sustainable Land Use Fund
The Budget set aside $229m to encourage sustainable land use. The plan is that money would be spent on actual projects to clean up freshwater. But let's be honest, that money is a drop in the budget of the problems we face. As a result it will be nothing more than a perpetuation of National's tokenistic attempts to improve our freshwater. What is needed in the likes of Canterbury is land use change.
A chunk of the money should urgently be put into action based research. Not pure research, the applied stuff. The sort of stories that farmers can look over their fence and consider adopting for themselves.
Plenty of farmers out there are trialling new crops, or regenerative, low input, biological, or organic farming. Others are trialling new technology such as barns. Let’s help them figure out if their ideas are working and spread those ideas. We should also be allowing the use of gene editing that doesn't introduce DNA from another species as a safe way to create new breeds of grasses that reduce environmental impact.
Move away from dependence on fertiliser companies
More broadly, New Zealand’s science system strongly encourages projects that have corporate backing and co-funding. While there are often good reasons for this, in the farming context it means our research is skewed by the companies that are willing to invest. Too often these are our big fertiliser companies Ballance and Ravensdown. For obvious reasons, this sort of research then tends to double down on trying to find ways to make the status quo work. We need to cut research loose from Big Ag companies to encourage investment into truly innovative land uses (as per TOP policy).
Change Landcorp's mandate
Not many people know this, but the country’s largest farmer is actually government-owned. It is known as Landcorp – or Pamu if you’re buying their products in the shops. Like most farmers, Landcorp doesn’t make a huge profit – its return on land value is usually around 2%. However, Associate State-Owned Enterprise Minister Shane Jones still wants it to make as much money as possible.
You might think that making a profit is what state-owned enterprises should do, and generally you’d be right. However, when issues of national importance pop up, the Government often turns down money from such enterprises so it can focus on solving a big problem. Take a look at Housing New Zealand. In response to the housing crisis, Housing NZ is now focussed on building social housing instead of returning a profit to the Government. That’s fair enough.
We face a similar crisis from the environmental impacts of farming, particularly in Southland and Canterbury. We have to innovate – quickly – to find new ways of doing things. This might involve different ways of farming cattle or completely different land uses, like wine or stone fruit. What will work the best? I don’t know. That’s why we need to get on and try.
This is exactly what Landcorp should be doing: innovating and sharing its results with all of the country’s farmers. Who cares if it doesn’t make a profit for a few years? Our farmers learn by looking over the fence. This next decade is crucial if we are to face up to our environmental challenges without trashing our great farming tradition.