Comment: Jacqueline Rowarth calls on smart-thinking Kiwis to be more innovative – not only to develop New Zealand's eco-future but also to create an environment and economy in balance.

"New Zealand is the best deliverer of prosperity in the world – the best at turning its resources and the skills of its people into prosperity." – Legatum Global Prosperity Index, 2016

In 2016 the Legatum Global Prosperity Index ranked New Zealand No 1 of 149 countries with the words: "New Zealand is the best deliverer of prosperity in the world – the best at turning its resources and the skills of its people into prosperity."

In 2016 we were No 1 in the economic ranks and 13th in the environment. In 2018 we were second overall, 14th in the economy and fourth in environment.

This change in rankings is indicative of the classic 'environment versus economy' debate.

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But we are still second overall and are clearly doing more to protect the environment, which has always been ranked highly and is now ranked even higher globally.

Economic opportunities

New Zealand has achieved its high rankings through the activities of smart people.

Beyond the 'number 8 wire' mentality (which most of us acknowledge is 'trying to make do' – I once used a piece of number 8 I found by a strainer post to fix the throttle cable on my Fiat Bambina when halfway up Mt Messenger, for instance), it is real innovation that has made the difference.

Electric fences, in-line milk samplers, new breeds and cultivars, precision irrigation – New Zealand has led the world and entrepreneurs have created growth-oriented organisations focused on economic opportunities.

They've focused increasingly on the market opportunities associated with environmental opportunities, as well.

Some of these have been what is termed 'exogenous shocks' – regulatory changes occurring domestically as well as internationally.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

Some have been because it is the right thing to do. The co-operative fertiliser companies are an example. They've developed models and precision tools to assist with placement of fertiliser, and as precision increases less fertiliser is needed.

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Of course, this will impact on their bottom line, but as co-operatives, they are acting to assist farmers and growers improve their economics whilst protecting the environment for all New Zealanders.

We ALL make an impact

Aotearoa2019, the document on the state of our environment released by StatsNZ and the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) in mid-April, made the point clearly: ALL New Zealanders are making an impact on the environment in the way we live and the way we make a living.

The report showed that water flowing through urban environments is of considerably lower quality than that flowing through pastoral areas, and both are lower quality than water flowing through native forests.

It did not point out, however, that native forests are generally nearer the headwaters of the rivers, nor that cities are often on the flat land and nearer the mouth of the river – rivers flowing hundreds of kilometres will tend to accumulate nutrients and those nutrients support river life.

Nor did it mention that water quality in most rivers has improved since the 1950s and 60s because of increased understanding of human impact and the implementation of new technologies. And because it was a New Zealand-focused document, comparisons with overseas were not included.

Similarly, the emissions profile for greenhouse gases (GHG) was explained as being unusual because half of our GHG come from agriculture, giving us a high GHG per capita.

The importance of agriculture to the economy was acknowledged – but how many people know that New Zealand is at best practice for emissions per unit of milk and meat?

This was stated at the New Zealand Agricultural Gas Research Centre Conference in May by the Ministry for Primary Industries' Science Advisor.

If you are at a high A in performance, it is very difficult to reach A+ without considerable cost. The mid-April media coverage showing the cost of increasing New Zealand's renewable energy from over 80 per cent to 100 per cent would be 'exorbitant' and 'an extravagant move' makes the point.

More innovation needed

Another point in Aotearoa2019 was that road transport makes up 39 per cent of the carbon emissions in New Zealand.

MfE reported last year an 82.1 per cent increase in road transport emissions since 1990.

We're buying more and travelling more – and the technology for electric vehicles (EV) is not yet good enough and sufficiently affordable to replace what we already have (noting that New Zealand has a very high per capita vehicle ownership and road fleet).

Making a better future requires more innovation and then adoption of new technologies, just as we've done in the past.

Understanding the issues presented in Aotearoa2019 will help. We need to know what has happened, when and why, before we can know what to do about it. And we need smart-thinking people developing New Zealand's eco-future.

We have a great starting point, but need funding and knowledgeable people working with education, science, industry, councils and rural professionals. And society.

Together we can create a future that others will envy – with the environment and economy in balance.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth CNZM CRSNZ HFNZIAHS has a PhD in Soil Science and has been analysing agri-environment interaction for several decades. She recommends a visit to Fieldays 2019 to see the latest developments in and for the primary sector.