Steven Carden: Our land will have more crops and fewer hooves on it

In a world that is changing incredibly quickly, what do we grow? What is it that people value? Photo / Christine Cornege
In a world that is changing incredibly quickly, what do we grow? What is it that people value? Photo / Christine Cornege

Another day, another international report has suggested New Zealand needs to reduce its reliance on animal-based farming. Sobering, for sure. But not cause for panic.

Why? Because I think many farmers are coming to accept further change to how we produce food is required. And the public understands significant change on farms isn't simple, inexpensive or quick.

The reports, a once-a-decade look at our environment by the OECD and research by UK-based company Vivid Economics into how New Zealand can achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, both suggested that, along with changes to energy use, we need to change what we do with our land.

They suggest switching from so much pastoral (animal-based) agriculture towards horticulture, crops and forestry. But, to quote John Ward from Vivid, they are supporting a continuation of current trends, "we are not talking about throwing New Zealand agriculture under a bus".

The shifts are already occurring. The halving of the national sheep flock over the past few decades, for example, has been about market signals and decisions by individual farmers. The same factors were behind the growth of traditional dairying up until a couple of years ago.

Farmers follow the signals. But it's really expensive to change because the country has billions of dollars of assets on our farms and factories dedicated to pastoral food production that we can't afford to strand.

But we are slowly starting to see another shift. In February a story emerged out of Northland - a proposal to create New Zealand's largest avocado orchard on the shores of the Kaipara Harbour.

The land is currently a 405ha dairy farm. The investors have decided that for this land, avocados are a better proposition than milk.

That is the sort of thing farmers and food producers are increasingly grappling with. In a world that is changing incredibly quickly, what do we grow? What is it that people value? What will they want to eat? And how can I afford to change my farm to produce that.

These are vitally important questions for New Zealand because our survival depends upon our ability to produce food in ways that are endorsed locally (so that we can keep doing it) and valued by consumers globally (so that we can make money out of doing it).

At Landcorp we're trying to transform our business to create really valuable food and natural products that consumers love, and in a way that is sustainable. That involves taking environmental protection seriously

In the West, there is a growing focus on diets with perceived health benefits. The range of food we're eating is expanding rapidly, from an increasingly exotic collection of plants (dragon fruit, anyone?) to insect protein. And science is stretching that range of new foods even further.

A French company has recently made a $420 million investment in Canada to build the world's largest pea processing facility. This will manufacture pea protein, the likes of which an Auckland company plans to turn into "chicken" and have on shelves soon.

In China, our biggest export market, government health guidelines are aiming to halve the amount of meat consumed by 2030 out of concerns over environmental impact. If that initiative is successful, it would see a reduction equivalent to the total current consumption of meat in the United States.

We would be wrong to assume the dietary profile of the global population in 2050 will match that of the western world today. Plants will inevitably play a much bigger role on our plates than animal products do now - check out how different the millennial generation's diet is to the baby boomer's.

What does that mean for our business and for New Zealand in the future?

Good meat and milk will still be in demand but it will become more expensive to produce as our environmental and animal welfare expectations continue to lift.

If it's more expensive, consumers want their food to be as nutritious as possible and consistently delicious. The industry is improving the eating quality of its products, away from our traditional focus on quantity.

One of New Zealand's great advantages is that our farming methods are already "natural". Milk from free-range, antibiotic-free animals is an aspirational novelty in most other parts of the world.

But while our "truly free range" farming systems are not enough on their own. To command sustainable premiums, we need better quality products.

That's why we are converting some of our dairy farms to organics, building a sheep milk operation, and doing research to see what can be done with deer milk.

Eventually, however, our cow, sheep and deer animal products will have to become more niche. So we're exploring alternative land uses that allow us to grow legumes or vegetables or fruit with unique traits and a lower environmental footprint.

Our future has more crops and trees in our soil and fewer hooves on it.

• Steven Carden is the chief executive of Landcorp (Pāmu), the largest farmer in New Zealand, with almost one million acres under management.

- NZ Herald

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