Thursday, August 18, 2022

Farming in a consumer-led market

Conscious consumerism is driving change in New Zealand’s food supply chain, forcing food producers to reinvent their ways, Silver Fern Farms (SFF) chief executive Simon Limmer says.

Hamish and Amy Bielski’s switch to regenerative farming has turned their property into one big solar panel, with livestock the energy harvesters turning energy from photosynthesis to high-quality nutrient-dense food, while building the soil carbon sponge on their South Otago farm. 

Conscious consumerism is driving change in New Zealand’s food supply chain, forcing food producers to reinvent their ways, Silver Fern Farms (SFF) chief executive Simon Limmer says.

Limmer was one of three keynote speakers addressing B.linc Innovation’s Regenerating the Meat Industry forum, tackling what regenerative really means and the importance of collective understanding to benefit the food supply chain right from pasture to plate.

“We know we need to reinvent ourselves as we look to the way of the world these days and bring the producer, consumer and stakeholders close together in understanding and creating value for each other,” Limmer said.

He said shifts in NZ consumer red meat consumption have gone from red meat anxiety in 2010, when consumers didn’t understand their meat, to developing appreciation and real food goodness, to the rise of the conscious consumer thinking much deeper about what they consume and spending their dollar more selectively in 2022. 

“Consumers are telling us what they care about; they are thinking about water, the environment, and their health,” he said.

“We have been guilty over the years of throwing big volumes of meat over our shoulder not really understanding the market.

“The conscious consumer is understanding their food much more deeply and we need to understand and deliver to that as they are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.

“There is a whole raft of market segments we need to be thinking about and delivering to.”

New respect for food security and gradual understanding of farming is part of the solution in better telling our story, he said.

AgResearch senior scientist in farm system and environmental research David Stevens said the future lies in melding old science with new science.

“That comes down to concentrating on the first principles of grazing, soil fertility, meat quality and pasture production and re-examining current practice through a new lens.

“It’s about making sure we are investigating the right issues,” Stevens said.

“From a science perspective, it’s where we are trying to go in NZ pastoral systems.”

NZ is a unique environment, with a long history of grazing management and deep knowledge of functional plant communities for grazing and significant understanding of soil chemistry that work.

“It is important to understand the bits that work in our environment and to work with that,” he said. 

“There is an incomplete ecosystem, so we need to have that understanding as we want to make that better.”

Stevens said regenerative agriculture practices hit at the heart of some of NZ’s biggest environmental challenges: restoring the quality of waterways; increasing carbon sequestration in soil; reducing greenhouse gas emissions; improving food quality and safety; allowing healthy ecosystems to flourish; and improving profitability.

But he said beyond the broad definition, the term regenerative is largely shrouded in confusion.

“It’s a difficult space when you are trying to generate an apparition that you can’t describe,” he said.

Regenerative agriculture currently has no single definition, but most definitions include references to rehabilitating or improving soil, water and biotic resources.

“There are many add-ons, some red herrings thrown in, commercial opportunities which are not helpful, and climate change – heaps of confusion and we need to sort that out.”

Innovative technologies, including new plant and animal genetics, rumen microbiome discoveries and modifications to management practices to improve resilience, are key to adding value to both food producers and consumers.

“I don’t like to say it because we can’t use it in NZ yet, but it’s GM (genetic modification) if we want to make real change in the future to value how we produce food,” he said.

“If we want to save the planet there are opportunities to connect with now using new plants with tannins with lower methane emissions.

“There’s a lot more playing in the sandpit to be done to help us do better than we were before.

“It’s important we are getting the right technology in front of our farmers to help them improve their practices.”

South Otago livestock farmer Hamish Bielski has changed his farming systems, dropped cropping and went solely to livestock, collaborating and using innovative regenerative farming practices to optimise land-use and improve biodiversity as well as lifting actual value of the product he produces.

He believes the way his farm is operating is meeting changing consumer demands.

“We are making natural, real food, that’s what people want, they just don’t know it,” Hamish said.

“How a pasture grows has not changed, we are implementing old science and just doing it better.

“We are a flexible, simple operation in a sustainable and scalable food system that works for us, the environment and the consumer.

“Well-managed livestock are the absolute solution to what I call plant pollution and we are not complicated when it comes to marketing.

“We are producing real food in a biological system and the consumer will come to that.”

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