Monday, 15 February 2021

The search for transformation


We live in unsettling times, with much of our immediate focus on the impacts of Covid-19. This mega-disruption can easily camouflage longer-term trends in food, agriculture, and broader society, thereby distracting attention from needed strategic transformation.

In New Zealand we face a dichotomy. Our trading focus is clearly on Asia, but our financial system is Western-centric, and so are our overarching institutions and thought patterns. The incongruity is seldom discussed.

Long before Covid-19 came along, the Western world was experiencing a reduction in economic growth. At times that situation has been camouflaged in various ways by rhetoric and specific macro-economic policies that have short-term impacts but cannot change the overarching big picture.

Productive investment opportunities have become harder to identify across all sectors of the economy. The big technological breakthroughs in the past 20 years have been increasingly in communication and information transfer, rather than in the manufacturing of physical products.

Over the last year I have written multiple articles alerting readers to the reality that much of our wealth improvements in New Zealand during the last 15 years have stemmed from the increased Chinese demand for the specific products – mainly pastoral, but also horticultural, seafood, and timber products – in which New Zealand specialises. We may well look back on the last 15 years as a golden period where gains were easy to make, and where those gains flowed right through the economy, albeit with some demographic groups benefitting more than others.

It would be naive to think that New Zealand will find big new markets for our products in the West. Europe and the Americas do not need our food and fibre products. Those regions are also drifting away from multilateralism and increasingly ‘thinking local’. Our predominant future has to lie elsewhere.

The obvious places to search are the ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries as well as China. If it were simply a case of economic potential, then China would remain the key focus. In contrast, once geopolitics are included, then the ASEAN countries also come to the fore. But either way, nothing is going to be straightforward.

It is easy to be distracted by an increasing focus on plant-based and laboratory-manufactured protein foods in which New Zealand will never have a competitive advantage. Search a little deeper and we see that global consumer demand for total dairy products, but not milk itself, continues to increase. Similarly, our pastoral meat and seafood products have a combination of protein density and provenance that sets them apart. The southern hemisphere location also brings advantages for specific perennial crops, particularly for those that have a shelf life of more than two months but less than 12 months. Kiwifruit is an outstanding example.

Apart from issues of markets, the challenges for New Zealand’s land-based industries relate to environmental issues and associated constraints. This situation interacts with an urban-dominant population, most of whom lack the science education to engage in an informed debate. This leads to a need for great leadership across the political, environmental and economic spectra.

Environmental debates have a tendency to be based on dogma and evangelism, with an unwillingness to engage sufficiently in finding creative solutions. One of my own specific endeavours is to increase understanding of the potential dairy industry transformation that can occur through the use of ‘composting mootels’. I use the term ‘mootel’ advisedly, rather than the word ‘barn’, because the structures and systems are very different to every other barn structure. In contrast to many barn systems, the mootel system aligns nicely with pastoral grazing systems and can achieve outstanding animal welfare.

We know the mootel system can work at the whole-farm level, as long as physical structures are appropriate and key management principles are followed. We also know with confidence that the system can greatly reduce nitrogen leaching. Currently, some of us are even exploring ways of capturing the methane emitted by cows while in the mootel.

However, at a national research, development and extension (RD&E) level, progress in relation to composting mootels and associated farming systems has not been fast. It is farmers and industry who have been leading the way, but also at times making avoidable mistakes.

One big message from all of this is that, regardless of the specific industry, we have to keep searching for better ways to do things. In the process, we also have to keep asking ourselves whether the current national RD&E system is facilitating and leading the creative thinking and associated transformational endeavours
that are needed.

Does our current national RD&E system encourage specific thinking that too often leads to scientific papers and marginal change rather than transformation? Do we have the right settings to bring forth the necessary science-based creativity and then build on that, or is our science limited by managerialism and self-survival of the RD&E institutions? Are we spending too much time recycling conventional wisdom that lacks foundations in the world where we trade?

There are big questions to be asked, and some of the answers might be painful.

Keith Woodford was professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University from 2000 to 2015. He now consults through his own company AgriFood Systems. He writes regularly for various media on rural and wider topics, with these articles archived at here. Keith can be contacted at