What will farming look like in 20 years’ time? To a large degree, that depends on the industry’s ability to turn challenges into opportunities’. It also means making sure the rules of today don’t prevent the changes needed tomorrow.
New Zealand has faced a number of defining moments in its history – through European settlement, wars, subsidy removals, natural disasters and more.
Early New Zealand farmers had it hard, but they adapted, and ultimately laid the groundwork for New Zealand to become the thriving country it is today. Massive innovation came about in those early decades, fundamentally changing the face of farming.
During the World Wars, New Zealand changed again, with farmers helping to get the country through those darkest times. From adversity, again came opportunities and innovation.
At each of the key points in our country’s modern history, flexibility has been key to enabling farmers to assess where they’re at, what the future might look like, and how to get there. Whether the drivers for change are economic, regulatory, market, climate, political or environmental, that need for agility remains.
The death-knell to flexibility is rigid rules that lock practices in at a specific point in time. This is even more so if that point in time is decades earlier, disregarding the human activity and modification of the environment (urban, industrial and rural) that subsequently occurred.
Proposals for rigid rules seem all too rife at present. It’s a bit like playing ‘whack a mole’. No sooner is one proposal over, when another pops up. This is even more so given this avalanche of national rules and regulations is on top of existing biosecurity, animal welfare, employment, health and safety, district, regional air, water and land plans and bylaws.
From a policy perspective, we want to make sure all these rules talk to each other. Nobody gains from confusing, unclear rules that contradict or duplicate each other. Farmers generally just want to know what they can and can’t do as of right, and what they might need a resource consent for. Having to work that out by looking at umpteen rules from different places never goes down well.
We’re currently facing new or changed proposals on water, biodiversity, soils and climate change, and if we get this right, we can address all four matters at once.
There are real risks though if the answers are at cross-purposes. For example, if we just look at climate change, the answer for some is just to cover New Zealand in a sea of pines. The implications for biodiversity, soils and water, and for rural communities, are stark if this path is taken.
Diversification will ultimately provide the way through for many farmers. We just need to look at the farmers around the Wānaka district already scoping out new breeds, products or markets; including taking up tourism and recreational venture opportunities as they arise.
While the media talks up synthetic proteins (or fake meat or milk), many farmers are already looking to see what ingredients these are made from, and working out what is needed to grow them.
At the end of the day, the real solutions to these challenges will come from on-farm and catchment level.
We just need to give farmers sufficient ability to innovate and adapt, and the agility to move without being locked in at a point in time, and they’ll use it, just as Kiwis always have.
Change can be scary, but I think it’s a ‘watch this space’ for the future of farming. This is the time to get things right.