COMMENT:

Over the past few months Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures has explored New Zealand's post-Covid future through a series of conversations with industry leaders, policy makers, scientists and stakeholders. Two discussions, on the future of our food and primary production system (www.informedfutures.org/the-future-of-food-the-primary-sector) and that of our environmental challenges (www.informedfutures.org/the-environment-is-now) converged, and raised some interesting challenges.

The future of New Zealand's food production needs to be value-based; reflecting both those embedded within our society and those of consumers. But that future cannot be considered in isolation from our environmental, cultural, social and economic futures, and it requires strategic alignment over many decades, rather than a three-year political cycle.

Can we leverage the international interest in our unique national values, attributes and our status as a leading producer of elite primary products? Could this be the basis for the renewal of New Zealand's national brand? Alongside this, the commercial case for sustainability is becoming much more apparent, with a sustainable business model integral to success in uncertain times.

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There is a need to re-evaluate existing paradigms, business models and mindsets. Supporting this, there must be an integrated strategy with a common set of goals, based on a collective, cross-sectoral agreement that links economic, social and environmental aspirations.

Business-as-usual, incremental approaches will not lead to the necessary transformation.

Underlying issues such as the determination of land use, water access and quality issues must be pulled out of the too-hard basket. The system must adapt to the changing weather patterns as climate change will make some current practices and land uses untenable. Climate change will also heighten the risk of biosecurity incursions, which threaten plant production and animal health, as well as native biodiversity.

And the system must evolve towards carbon neutrality.

The common assertion that our food production is a mature industry is wrong. There are major opportunities, both terrestrial and aquatic, but a more strategic approach to research and development is needed. Incentives in the New Zealand research system have a largely short-term focus. To be strategic, the science system needs to fix its splintered nature and the misplaced incentives on which it is based.

The make-up of the private sector creates challenges, because most producers and manufacturers are small businesses.

We need investment in research to support an increasingly technologically-based sector. Many different technologies, including sensors, big data and artificial intelligence, and breakthroughs in the life sciences will dramatically change agriculture and food production systems around the globe.

We must invest to ensure food safety and provenance traceability, and in data sharing across the sector.

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Claims for alternate farming systems at scale such as regenerative agriculture will need to be supported by contextually relevant research. Non-animal-based foods, replacing meat and milk, using advanced technologies based on plants or fermentation are rapidly emerging. Barriers to exploring the potential of advanced life science technologies to assist our food system need to be periodically reassessed. New food-processing systems, such as 3D printed foods and sustainable packaging, are developing in response to changing consumer preferences.

The necessary adaptations, investments and innovations will take time, but need to be planned for now.

We need a national marine strategy that allows for innovative, sustainable aquaculture development and investment while supporting the preservation of marine ecosystems and biosecurity — perhaps we need a ministry for the oceans.

We need to consider workforce requirements in the primary sector, including psychosocial needs of rural communities and training for future high-tech production methods.

There are increasing calls globally for dramatic changes in food consumption, in particular a move away from ruminant- to plant-based foods to reduce environmental impacts and enhance health. This could significantly affect the acceptability of our pastoral products in some markets although niche markets will remain for quality products. Can we rely on those alone? Domestically we have too many people with food insecurity. Our public health and education systems have failed badly with respect to nutritional advice and regulation of unhealthy marketing.

Can New Zealand become a global leader in sustainability across the entire food system? We need a clear narrative — can we develop a "sustainable New Zealand" brand, but one supported by validation, certification and labelling? Taking a proactive approach to emphasising the qualities of sustainable, low-carbon dairy production, agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and aquaculture could be highly valuable. It is critical that government agencies take a more co-ordinated and co-determinative partnership with scientists, producers and manufacturers to support the sector's journey towards a resilient future.

The socio-economic consequences of Covid-19 and presents an unparalleled opportunity to rethink our future acknowledging the many accumulated issues that need to be addressed. In doing so we can accelerate transformation of our core export industry towards a more sustainable and profitable future. Primary production is not a sunset industry, but it must continue to evolve.

We will continue to depend on it.

- Sir Peter Gluckman is director of Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.