COMMENT:

Protecting our environment while remaining one of the world's best food and fibre exporters has both challenges and opportunities says Stefan Corbett, Director Regional Economic Development at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

The agriculture sector is a cornerstone of the New Zealand economy, but this productivity is now being increasingly linked with meeting higher environmental standards.

New Zealand has a long history of farming innovation and this includes many individual farmers and growers looking at ways to reduce their environmental footprint, lower their emissions and protect the quality of our waterways.

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These environmental pioneers have shown the way for other farmers, and in recent years there has been increased efforts by our food and fibre sectors to support and lead this change.

The Government has openly stated that protecting our environment and supporting the transition to a sustainable, low emissions future is one of their top priorities, so there's a very strong mandate for positive change.

One example is the Productive and Sustainable Land Use (PSLU) package. PSLU is a $122 million commitment to promote farm land-use practices that deliver more value and improved environmental outcomes across Aotearoa.

This investment recognises that while farmers, growers and other land users need to meet environmental standards, they also need to remain financially sustainable at the same time. This provides a key source of employment and economic wellbeing for our regions, and MPI is working to make sure every farmer has a way forward to achieve these goals.

The Government has recognised that the best outcomes will come from initiatives that are farmer-led as much as possible. A key project at MPI is supporting extension services, which support farmers to develop and share new knowledge to help achieve change, with benefits for individual farms and across catchment areas.

MPI's dedicated Māori Agribusiness Extension programme works with Māori land owners (where a piece of land may have many, even hundreds of collective owners) and agribusinesses to work collectively towards achieving the economic aspirations of their whānau, iwi and hapu, through more sustainable and productive land use.

Extension works really well because it's primarily a farmer-led approach to better farm management – its success relies on farmers driving the change. They know what is practicable for their farm and what they can implement, not just in one year, but over the long-term.

MPI already supports a group of 1000 Southland farmers and growers through the Thriving Southland project and 300 King Country farmers through the recently launched King Country River Care project. Each extension group agrees to a set of standards and the local farmers work together on developing and implementing solutions that suit their particular farm systems and conditions.

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For example, farmers with experience in reducing nutrient use, or protecting and repairing wetlands can share their learnings with those in their catchment who aren't as far along in their environmental planning and management.

Farmers are very aware that there are economic advantages in becoming more sustainable. Consumers are also increasingly expecting higher standards. They want to know their food is climate friendly and sustainably produced. Our food and fibre sector understands they need to make this transition to protect the value and reputation of our agricultural exports, and ensure certainty for their businesses, staff and their families.
The changing climate is also a factor for farmers looking at their practices and considering alternate ways to use their land. Diversification is something many farms go through over the generations, and can hold real opportunities both economically as well as reducing environmental impact.

For some farmers that could mean looking at support through the One Billion Trees Programme to integrate trees into under-utilised land on their livestock operation, for others it could mean moving some of their land from livestock to crops which are gaining popularity.

Some changes, especially planting around waterways, can have multiple benefits - protecting freshwater and reducing erosion, increasing the carbon held in trees, and also reducing methane emissions from livestock.

More widely, there are social and cultural benefits of improving freshwater and our freshwater ecosystems. An improved natural environment enhances opportunities for swimming and other recreation in waterways, and simply spending time in nature enhances social connections, people's wellbeing and mental health.

We're increasingly seeing farmers retire some of their less productive land, reduce the number of livestock they have, plant more trees and work to restore wetland areas. Getting the funding assistance and advice mentioned above can enable them to improve their farm practices while still retaining productivity.

Most New Zealanders understand there is an environmental and economic cost if we keep doing what we've always done. Farmers, growers, government and others all have a part to play, often by working in partnership.

The case for change is well understood, and there are many solutions and innovations already being implemented on farms around New Zealand.

There's a multitude of great advice and forms of assistance available to help drive more sustainable land use practices and we encourage farmers and growers to talk to MPI about the support available.

More information is available at mpi.govt.nz/funding-and-programmes or email pslu@mpi.govt.nz