We need to move past the blame game and seek meaningful and lasting answers, says William Rolleston

Increasingly, agriculture relies on its social licence to operate -- the unwritten agreement between industry and society -- balancing benefit and impact.

To work effectively the social licence to operate needs to have its base in evidence.

This is why science is a priority for Federated Farmers. This is why we are disappointed to see environmental groups distorting or using selective evidence in the water debate to undermine what farmers are doing.

We need to realise these tactics not only undermine our licence to operate, they reduce our ability to trade up our products and earn our way in the world.

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In a world of uncertainty, with the risk of increasing protectionism and other external forces, those who really care about the future of New Zealand should take heed before pushing their narrow agenda in order to fill their donation coffers.

We live in a multi-faceted world. Economic outcomes and good environmental outcomes are both important but they do not always go in the same direction.

We need to move past the blame game I have just described and seek meaningful and lasting solutions that take the economy and the environment on the same journey.

It is not simply a matter of reducing cow numbers, though there will be areas where that may be the best option. It is about using science and technology to help us reduce our environmental footprint while increasing our output.

This is what I see as increasing productivity or making more efficient and effective use of resources -- be those resources water, nutrients, land or energy.

We have looked hard at the issue of climate change. The scientific consensus is that climate change is happening and humanity, including agriculture, is having an effect. We farmers must play our part and we do. Already over the past two decades we have reduced our carbon intensity by 1.2 per cent year-on -year.

Farmers have planted trees for shelter, erosion control, amenity, and water protection.

We have invested in science to accelerate our productivity gains and reduce biological emissions. All of these things take both the economy and the environment in the same direction. But we have done more -- we have told our story to developing-country farmers so they can improve their own carbon efficiency and their own economic situation.

We will soon be faced with a moral dilemma -- use GM because it will assist us to reach our environmental and economic aspirations or reject it because we are scared of the market.

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It would be unrealistic to think we could achieve zero emissions from animals but we must aim for unprecedented levels of carbon efficiency in our food production -- it is good for us economically and environmentally. We must strive to be the best in this space and to be the best we need access to all the technology tools in the toolbox.

The digital revolution is upon us and we stand on the dawn of the genetic revolution.

Science is offering us new ways to manage our farms and improve our productivity while reducing our environmental footprint. Science and technology are changing the economies of scale and how we do business -- robotics and driverless vehicles will no longer mean a single driver on an ever larger machine but swarms of smaller autonomous machines with a lighter footprint and greater precision.

The internet has the potential to bring producer and consumer closer together, bypassing the supermarket.

Science and technology are accelerating animal and plant breeding, through marker assisted selection and gene editing. The price to sequence a genome has dropped from several billion to a few thousand dollars in a decade. Genetic modification through gene editing is now more accurate, more accessible and cheaper . It will soon overtake conventional breeding in cost, speed and safety and we need to be prepared for it.

Science is offering us new ways to manage our farms and improve our productivity while reducing our environmental footprint.

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Technologies already exist to place nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the leaves of domesticated plants, providing free and valuable nutrients right where they are needed, minimising nitrogen leaching. AgResearch has used biotechnology to modify ryegrass.

Laboratory trials indicate an increase in productivity and palatability of 40 per cent, and reduction in methane emissions and water demand of 25 per cent and nitrate leaching by 30 per cent. Trials of this system are being carried out in the United States on alfalfa and soybeans because our regulations are too hard. I'm told American farmers can't wait to get their hands on it. The GM-free premium will have to be pretty high to make rejecting this technology worth it.

Controls are also being developed using genetic technologies for pest mammals -- which are devastating our birds, spreading disease and competing for pasture -- and for wilding pines, which are marching across our high country.

So we will soon be faced with a moral dilemma -- use GM because it will assist us to reach our environmental and economic aspirations or reject it because we are scared of the market. If there is one place New Zealand could show environmental leadership, it is here.

Of course in a global market we need to be cognisant of consumer views but we should not be paralysed by fear when we know through science and evidence that our intervention is better for the environment.