Thursday, 13 February 2020

Unintended consequences of environmental solutions


New Zealand agricultural systems are already very efficient by global standards and compare well with the developed world. However, if globally we want to continue to feed the world with the least impact environmentally then it is important to have the lowest footprint per unit of food and to maintain the investment in technology to reduce this footprint. To do otherwise simply has a worse global environmental outcome.

The many solutions being offered for ensuring that food production reduces the impact upon the environment ranges from Biodynamic to Organic, Ecological, Regenerative, Conventional and Industrial. Advocates of some systems suggesting that New Zealand farmers can change to another system to not only do ‘better’ by the environment but make more money, without attracting a premium for the product. While the presenters said this is feasible for some food producers – offering blanket solutions could result in leakier systems overall which is not the desired outcome.

Part of the difficulty in the debate is differences in starting points, goals, and resources available to achieve these goals. In particular, the different approaches of minimising environmental impact per unit of production versus minimising impact per hectare by sparing land from agricultural production.

The latter is the focus in Europe, which has seen a rise in agricultural subsidies to offset the opportunity cost, however there has been little positive effect for the environment. In fact, the OECD nutrient balance figures suggest nitrogen losses are increasing again.

The research paper presented, considers the production and environmental aspects of organic and conventional systems, taking into account the economic aspects such as government subsidies. We’ve used the data available to compare yields to nutrient losses and greenhouse gases, both per kg of production and per hectare.

The findings? Imposing ‘systems’ based on belief rather than analysis, however well-meaning, could result in unintended environmental consequences and have a negative impact on the global environment and the profitability of not only the individual but the national economy. New Zealand farmers, unsupported and unconstrained by government subsidies, are in the fortunate position of having options to choose the farming approach that suits their farm (soil, topography, climate, location), values and inclination.

Of interest was the identification of a model called Sustainable Intensification (SI), which is being promoted by the Food Climate Research Network at The University of Oxford. Sustainable Intensification identifies a goal but not how it should be attained or which agricultural techniques to deploy.

It’s all about context. New Zealand produces high quality food with the least environmental impact per unit of food produced and to do otherwise risks both the global environment and global famer profitability. Farmer’s should be able to retrofit what works for them so they’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.