Opinion: Global food security is on a razor's edge, but Kiwi farmers can show other countries what can be achieved whilst continuing to make more improvements down on the farm, writes Jacqueline Rowarth.
Recent food price increases in New Zealand are small in comparison with the rest of the world. The 2.8 per cent increase to the year ended July 2021 in New Zealand is nothing in comparison with the 31.0 per cent reported for the global Food Price Index by the FAO over the same time frame.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, food insecurity worldwide was on the rise.
The Economist's Intelligence Unit (EIU) Index released at the beginning of the year stated that the pandemic threatens to erase "progress made in the fight to eliminate global hunger and malnutrition".
Falling incomes, disruption in supply chains and logistics, worsening climate, and environmental dynamics, including inadequate rainfall, rising temperatures, floods and extreme weather are all having an effect.
This is undoubted and activists have been campaigning for action globally since the 1990s.
In New Zealand Greenpeace has been to the fore, recently suggesting that New Zealand should reduce cow numbers and embrace organic regenerative agriculture to assist the climate.
In doing so the organisation isn't thinking globally.
The world's issue is population growth and requirement for improved nutrition, particularly that provided by animal protein.
The razor's edge description was used in a paper from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln published in Nature Sustainability last year.
Lead researcher Emeritus Professor Kenneth Cassman is a world expert in the development of sustainable intensification – "The need to meet global food demand while protecting environmental quality and conserving natural resources".
The paper pointed to "vicious price spikes" in food but also gave other evidence of a fragile global food supply.
This included rapid increase in land used for crop production and abrupt slowing in the rate of yield increase on existing farmland.
If food supplies per hectare don't increase, the only way to feed more people is expand the hectares, which leads to deforestation and reduces habitat for biodiversity.
Professor Cassman isn't the first person to suggest that rapid economic growth is highly correlated with per capita consumption of animal protein (meat, dairy and fish).
Less well promoted is that traditional, small-scale livestock production systems cannot meet the need; large-scale livestock feeding operations tend to fill the gap.
When fed on waste products (e.g., from the biofuel and alcohol industries) the animals fill an important role in converting waste to high quality human edible protein.
In some countries, however, forests are being replaced by soy crops to feed the cattle.
Professor Cassman has explained that "while less intensive, lower yielding, more diverse production systems may offer local environmental benefits, there are trade-offs if widely adopted due to indirect effects of land clearing elsewhere to meet food demand in global markets".
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
Organic regenerative agriculture meets the 'less intensive, lower yielding and more diverse' description. Greenpeace has not thought about the global problem.
New Zealand farmers are highly efficient. Meat and milk are produced with fewer greenhouse gases (GHG) than in other countries. Environmentalists suggesting to the media that efficiency is only behind the farm gate are wrong.
Agresearch scientists have shown with life cycle analysis that even when transport to the northern hemisphere is included, New Zealand farmers are world leading in efficiency.
For beef the top of the range of GHG per kg of liveweight (7.3 to 14.1 kg carbon dioxide equivalent per kg) is below the average for the OECD (15.1). These data are from a cradle to grave analysis published in the Science of the Total Environment last year.
The figures for milk are equally positive. The carbon footprint results released earlier this year indicated 0.74 (kg carbon dioxide equivalents per kg of fat and protein corrected milk).
Fonterra reports that 90 per cent of emissions to do with milk occur on-farm leaving only 10 per cent for processing and distribution.
Even adding GHG for that side of things, New Zealand is below the farm contribution of other countries.
This means that replacing meat or milk from New Zealand with that produced by another country will increase the impact on the environment and the world.
Federated Farmers has been making this point for some time.
The latest alarm has been sounded by Oxfam in its report on Net zero climate targets (called Tightening the Net). Oxfam has been part of life since 1942.
The name comes from the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief… and famine remains a major focus.
Large scale tree plantings to offset rich countries' emissions will not help reduce hunger.
Nor will a switch to low-input agriculture.
The report agrees that carbon emissions need to be reduced immediately but urges that land-based climate solutions must centre "food-first" approaches that help achieve both zero emissions and zero hunger.
It will take research. All reports echo the same message - adequate investment and effective R&D prioritisation to reach the required degree of sustainable intensification in food production systems.
New Zealand's role will be to show other countries what can be achieved whilst continuing to make more improvements down on the farm. The razor's edge is a global problem; leadership is in the Kiwi DNA.
• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected Director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org