Frank Griffin has spent a career in animal health research and also has a strong interest in New Zealand's food production systems. He spoke to Otago Daily Times rural editor Sally Rae about the future of farming and a couple of Otago-based initiatives to help achieve that vision.

Emeritus Prof Frank Griffin has a message for Kiwi farmers.

Rather than being afraid of the rise of alternative proteins, whether plant-based milk or lab-grown meat, they should embrace them.

"It gives you a chance to play in the rich playground. That's where you should be playing," he said.

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Looking to the future of New Zealand farming, it had to be about producing high-value food, he said.

But a different approach had to be taken; it was about producing smaller volumes of those higher-value products and while a pasture farming model would continue, the way that pasture was managed needed to change to a more sensitive, biological model.

And, if that was done, he believed New Zealand's greenhouse gas problem - including methane - could be solved with a change in farming practices to increase biodiversity, soil carbon and soil building.

The country's agriculture sector was at a watershed moment, where farmers were being challenged to respond to an ever-more restrictive licence to operate, Prof Griffin said.

At times, they had been blamed unfairly, he believed, for "abuse or overuse".

He is director of Agriculture at Otago (Ag@Otago), an initiative launched in 2016 and involving more than 60 Otago researchers with active interests in agriculture.

The research theme focused on enhancing agricultural productivity, adding value in primary industries and increasing sustainable and profitable environmental management practices for primary producers in the domestic and global agricultural sector, he said.

Ag@Otago had worked closely with farmers to understand their perspectives and respond to their concerns and challenges.

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"Progressive farmers are telling us that peak production is not compatible with sustainability and there's a real appetite among them to find new approaches.

"The emphasis now is to develop highly diverse, eco-friendly biological farming systems and a switch to high-value branded outputs, from a historical devotion to produce cheap commodity-based foods."

Sheep grazing in the Pomahaka River catchment where farmers have taken a lead over water quality issues. Photo / Supplied
Sheep grazing in the Pomahaka River catchment where farmers have taken a lead over water quality issues. Photo / Supplied

On December 8-9, Ag@Otago is hosting a symposium at the University of Otago entitled New Zealand Agriculture 2050 - Pathways of Innovation.

Griffin said the idea was to bring farmers to Dunedin and have some of New Zealand's "leading thinkers" on farming and food production give their views on what was desirable in the future.

It was about identifying that vision and also what the impediments to that vision were and the potential solutions to them.

Researchers had to respond to farmers' issues and a major role for them was to "discuss the art of the possible".

About 30-plus secondary school pupils, who were near to finishing school and had been taking agribusiness, agriculture or horticulture courses, would also be invited "as our future conscious".

Regulators, such as regional councils, would also be encouraged to attend.

Earlier this week, the University of Otago announced a new major within applied sciences, with the aim of developing future leaders in agriculture to help drive the industry forward.

The field of "agricultural innovation" was designed to focus students' learning on major issues and innovative solutions.

The new programme would draw on Otago's academic and research expertise across a diverse range of agriculture-related subjects such as environmental, ecology, technology, business, marketing, bioinformatics and genetics.

Enrolments would open in August for the first agricultural innovation level 1 paper, which would run in semester 2 of next year.

The paper would provide an overview of the environmental, economic, social and technological aspects of agriculture from a global perspective, Griffin said.

Agricultural products remained a major component of New Zealand's economic platform and more than 80 per cent of food produced was exported.

He saw New Zealand as essentially being two farms - the North Island and the South Island - which made New Zealanders the custodians of the world's two biggest farms.

"The Agriculture Minister has recently stated farmers need to operate at a higher level if they wish to retain their social licence to farm, so now is the time where academic leadership and applied research can impact positively on rural New Zealand."

Topsoil and carbon depletion was the greatest challenge in agriculture at present, he said.

That was why farm systems which enriched soil had to be looked at - "so we start to build soil rather than erode soil".

Nature was "so incredibly robust" that, if you gave it a chance, it would heal itself. And he believed when you got back to balance, you were also resolving climate change issues.

"We have to hold our nerve to say 'we don't want to produce more, we want to produce less'. We've got to look at things differently," he said.

Food had to be moved to interface with medicine and high value could be captured, in particular, with sheep.

"Nobody in the world can produce lamb like Kiwis can. Let's concentrate on the things which are uniquely Kiwi which we can brand."

His vision for New Zealand was for it to become a country with highly diverse mixed farming, horticulture and forestry.

"If we get it right, then our agricultural industry can act as a barometer for the health and wellbeing of the planet, and if we are smart we can create a situation where the world looks to us as a leader in ecological management and food production."