Environment top of mind for rural professionals

In July 2018, NZIPIM undertook a survey of members and other rural professionals. Within the survey we asked participants to provide their thoughts on what they saw as the biggest challenges faced by the primary industry sectors over the next three to five years.Of the 259 respondents who provided feedback to this open-ended question, 41% identified the environment (including such areas as regulations, sustainability, nutrient limits etc) as the biggest challenge in the future. The next biggest challenge identified by 37% of respondents was the increasing level of compliance faced by farmers and growers.

We also asked respondents about what they saw as the largest gaps in farmers' and growers' knowledge and understanding based on their dealings in working with their clients and other stakeholders. Unsurprisingly, the environment once again featured highly, with 55% identifying productivity within limits as the biggest knowledge gap within their client base.

Feedback provided in the survey shows that respondents have a high level of uncertainty over environmental matters, whether in a farm context or at a national policy level, particularly in areas that impact on farming business practices in the future.

I don't believe that there is a lack of willingness by farmers and their rural professionals in wanting to improve water quality and sustain natural ecosystems. However, given the fluid nature of the debate and diverse expectations across society, industry and government around managing environmental outcomes, we are seeing an elevated level of uncertainty on-farm. Worse still, we are seeing a sense of powerlessness over how to effectively respond to the myriad of challenges while building sustainable and profitable businesses.

Within the survey we also asked respondents to identify their top research priorities that should make the most significant positive difference to the future of the primary industry sectors. Farm systems was ranked as the highest research priority by respondents, with the best use of land being a constant theme within this category. Closely aligned with this, the next highest ranked research priority was the environment, particularly in the design of systems to reduce nutrient losses.

In looking at the survey data, respondents believe that farm system change should be a research priority. They feel that even with what research does occur, there is limited extension of such research to key user groups. This is in contrast to how rural professionals view the level of investment into researching the impacts and implications of climate change and in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

So while considerable research efforts are being made to mitigate GHG emissions in the agricultural sector, the level of investment in farm systems research that can pick up this research and integrate research findings into current or future farm systems has been low. Questions remain over the ability to apply affordable and practical on-farm solutions at scale to achieve the types of environmental outcomes being sought by so many parties.

Instead, it is with disconcerting familiarity that we hear of big bang approaches for New Zealand to dutifully meet its commitment to the Paris Agreement through changing land use scenarios. Even the New Zealand Productivity Commission's recently released report on the country becoming a low-emissions economy recommends a substantial lift in afforestation (up to 2.8 million ha), and expansion into horticulture and cropping, as shifts that 'must happen for New Zealand to achieve its low emission goals.'.

What this report and others rarely explore in any great depth is the market analysis and economic impact assessment of land use change at the scale often talked about, a point not lost on respondents to the survey.

Within the survey we asked participants to outline what they believed to be the biggest opportunities for the primary industry sectors over the next three to five years. Forty-three percent of respondents identified the market as the biggest opportunity, with a large proportion citing opportunities through increasing the value of New Zealand's agri-food and fibre products, and in focusing on our competitive advantage. Farm systems was also seen as an important area for further development, with 31% of respondents identifying big opportunities in exploring alternative farm systems and through the implementation of better traceability systems. Twenty-two percent of respondents believed big opportunities existed in technology, particularly in improving productivity and sustainable outcomes, while reducing costs. Unfortunately the breadth of discussion that openly explores how these types of opportunities can work toward the sort of environmental outcomes that we are all seeking represents a significant challenge that we must overcome.

More information from the survey will be made available to members soon. I would like to thank those who participated in the survey, and also wish to acknowledge the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Red Meat Profit Partnership programme in funding this project