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Sustainable farming has a critical role to play in the agriculture industry’s social license to operate

Charlotte Irving, one of our environmental consultants and resource economist, reflects on farmers’ current challenges and her way to address them.

C Irving Farm photo.jpg

Traditionally, farming in New Zealand has had a strong social license, having long been the backbone of the country’s economy. However, recently, the social license to farm has been more and more challenged by society at large as pastoral farming is increasingly perceived as a business activity which causes harm to the environment. Farmers are feeling under attack, hammered by images of very bad operators as representatives of the whole industry. The growing regulatory requirements have led to a loss of confidence in the future of farming and cause anxiety and resentment among farmers. Nowadays, farms not only have to be financially, socially and environmentally sustainable, but they need to demonstrate that they are operated in a way that also satisfies political and public interests. 

Despite the current apprehension, it is important to recognise the progress that has already been made in addressing environmental issues, as farming practices have come leaps and bounds. New Zealand agriculture has a proud history of development and has experienced significant advancements in productivity. Improvements in recent decades include extensive fencing and planting of waterways, better precision in fertiliser management and the reduction of harsh chemical sprays, most of which require significant on-farm investment. Farm Environment Plans are widely implemented and audited, and Overseer is used as a tool to understand nutrient and greenhouse gas losses to the environment and identify opportunities to mitigate these. Perhaps most importantly has been the changes in farmer knowledge to accept the need to make changes and prepare for them. These incremental changes are hard to appreciate on a daily basis. However, they look significant when going back a decade or more. Following the recent words of Anna Campbell (AbacusBio Ltd): “Farmers are asking for some perspective and it’s time for us to start listening” (source).

The agriculture industry needs to support farmers to rebuild their social license. There is no denying that it will be a huge challenge for farmers to improve and change their farming systems to be both more profitable and environmentally sustainable, while at the same time to exceed the public’s perception of what is considered good practice. It is imperative that rural professionals have the skills and capabilities to support their clients to respond to challenges and change continually. My role empowers my clients to position themselves for the future and navigate through change, by working alongside them to develop creative and practical solutions. Local understanding and knowledge of farmers is integral to create workable solutions from the ground up, rather than solutions that are impractical or misdirected. Continual improvement in farming practices needs to be achieved through a unified effort as a collaborative approach by farmers, rural professionals, scientists and industry bodies. 

Increasingly, farmers are required to reduce their environmental footprint. The focus is currently on water quality; however, greenhouse gas emissions have moved to the forefront. One of my specialist expertise areas involves applying my sound knowledge of farm systems to model farms in Overseer. Using my Overseer and economic expertise, I can determine the most cost-effective methods for farmers to reduce their environmental footprint. There is a high variability of the effectiveness of mitigations, based on the farm they are applied on. Each farm has its own set of physical and managerial circumstances and goals, and production systems can be diverse and complex. As each farmer has different goals, risk profiles and capabilities, recommendations need to be highly individualised. Skilled consultants are integral to help understand the effectiveness and cost of mitigations, and support informed on-farm adoption. 

To address today’s challenges and regain the social license to farm, there needs to be a shift from a reactive regulatory approach to a proactive regulatory approach which can be achieved through the industry and regulators working more collaboratively. I have been involved in this space by analysing the future implications associated with proposed regional council policies, such as the Canterbury LWRP and the proposed Waikato Healthy Rivers plan, on behalf of clients such as HortNZ, Wairakei Estate and Environment Canterbury. I have also recently participated in the development of a ‘Catchment Contaminant Invention’ project in Waituna, Southland, where I focused on mitigating nutrient losses from farms. Ultimately, successful policy needs to focus on practical solutions and implementation and long-term overarching goals. 

There are opportunities to explore new practices and communicate the findings of the innovative, early adopters to the wider farming sector. Who knew thirty years ago that farmers would be using drones to assess their pasture covers and stock and could dial up some rain on their cellphone! New Zealand’s ability to adapt, as we have done in the past, will define the degree of opportunity available to capture. 

Please drop Charlotte a note if you have any comments or questions.