Opinion: Jacqueline Rowarth explains what is important for our industry and why we don't quit.
Point 31 on the Rural Support Trust (RST) charity artwork Top Six Inches is a simple reminder: if you feel like quitting, ask why you started.
For some people, it was a matter of the expectation of taking over the family farm; for others, it was choice. And for children growing up in the 1960s and '70s, it might have been to save the world.
This was the era of Flower Power and The Green Revolution. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) was founded in 1961, Greenpeace in 1971, and between the two (1968) came the Club of Rome, focusing on Limits to Growth and balancing economic development and environmental impact.
The concept of "limits to growth" was put forward by Thomas Robert Malthus in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. He predicted that population growth would destroy the world through overuse of resources. Destruction has been delayed due to developments in agricultural science, and scientific knowledge in general.
The Green Revolution covering the 1950s to late '60s typifies the remarkable transformation achieved with plant and animal breeding and inputs such as nitrogen, irrigation, weed and pest control, and mechanisation.
Yields increased – more protein, carbohydrates and oils per hectare were produced. Even though the global population was increasing, food production was increasing even faster, and more people were being fed to a better state of nutrition than ever before.
Listen to Rowena Duncum interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
It was an exciting time to be deciding where to work, what disciplines to study, and how to get involved.
And, yes, there have been unintended consequences. Precision agriculture had yet to be developed, so leakage to the environment occurred. Chemicals entered the ecosystem and created imbalances with growth and death.
This gave a whole new area of research – how could we produce food sustainably? How do farmer and growers feed the world while decreasing impact on the environment?
Science has been and is working on these aspects
WWF and Greenpeace continue to make statements about how we could do better. Some are more logical than others. The WWF, for instance, is suggesting sustainable management of existing land in production, whereas Greenpeace NZ is promoting a shift to organic production systems and plant-based diets.
For the current world population, following the Greenpeace path would require more land under food production – endangering current forests and reserves.
Research published recently in Advances in Agronomy makes the problems clear: organic agriculture means extensification with lower yields to be compensated by expansion of arable land; it means "growing less food per acre, leaving less land for nature".
Plant-based diets add further distraction because the calculations are rarely based on accessible protein.
There is plenty of research that reveals people on a vegan diet need to eat more than omnivores in order to achieve their protein requirements. They also excrete (as waste) more nitrogen and need supplements to maintain health.
Affluence has enabled more people to have more choices. Scientific research enables understanding of the impact and implications of those different choices.
Ongoing NZ research
In New Zealand the research has been ongoing for more than 100 years, targeted at helping New Zealand farmers and growers do an ever-better job in what is a unique environment composed of many different unique environments.
Few other countries have such a range of soil types, topography and climates in close proximity and necessity has frequently been the mother of invention on farm. That necessity led to a close bond between farmers and researchers last century.
Innovation development and uptake was rapid because of that bond, and the fact that most farmers and growers follow Point 15 in the RST artwork – "to best manage change, it pays to keep an open mind".
An open mind has enabled changes in response to markets and science: the deer industry, dairy boom, kiwifruit conversions, increased avocado orchards, goats and sheep milk – all are examples. Ostrich, alpaca and water buffalo remain a niche.
Adapting and adopting
New Zealanders test and adapt. They also adopt. Precision agriculture and protection of waterways are the proof.
Willingness to adapt, plus the true grit of determination to adopt, underpins resilience.
It is what farmers and growers have shown during and after the Covid lock down. There was drought. There were challenges with contractors, builders and mechanics. There were difficulties with abattoirs and harvesting (and planting) of fruit and vegetables. But the farmers and growers kept on going and growing.
Point 14 in the RST charity artwork is "Fertiliser stimulates growth just as knowledge stimulates the mind".
Both are important for our industry and explain why we don't quit. We keep learning and keep doing better – and New Zealand farmers are the model for others.
Everything we do involves the top six inches – our brains and our soil.
Taranaki artist Paul Rangiwahia wrote and produced "Top Six Inches" in a collaboration with Taranaki Rural Support Trust chairman and national council member Mike Green. "Top Six Inches" will be launched in Taranaki on 19 November.
For more details, and indeed a copy of the work, ring 0800 787 254.
It's the Rural Support Trust 0800 number – Rural People Helping Rural People. And that is a very good "why".
• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth has an agricultural science degree with honours in environmental agriculture, and a PhD in soil science. She has held professorial positions in pastoral agriculture and agribusiness and is now a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org.