Wednesday, December 6, 2023

CHASING VALUE: Food production at fork in the road

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Alternative protein, plant-based diets, climate change, evolving animal ethics. Welcome to the disrupted food system. 
Reading Time: 4 minutes

As Kiwi food producers our challenge is to innovate our farming model to compete in a more complex world.

Now is the time to ask tough questions about how we got here and where we go next.

Let’s start with a story from an old farmer.

Matt Rothe heads a sustainable food programme at Stanford University and his grandfather was one of the first to buy a tractor.  

The old man recalls the promise of this incredible new machine – it would make farming better. 

Like many of his neighbours he took out a loan and entered the modern age of agriculture. Productivity skyrocketed. It soon made sense to take another loan, expanding the farm and moving towards an efficient, single-crop model supported by more breakthrough technology like fertiliser. 

Productivity went through the roof for him and every other farmer in the system. The abundance of food was great for supermarkets and shoppers but soon began a decades-long decline in commodity prices. Despite hard work and massive yields, Rothe’s grandfather found himself in a debt trap. 

This story is about productivism in agriculture, a business model where farmers, processors and retailers focus on producing as much food as possible as cheaply as possible. 

Also referred to as the agricultural technology treadmill, productivism runs deep in the New Zealand farming psyche. Enough so that it’s often just accepted as the way. The first thing a farmer will tell you is where they live. The second thing is their stock count or yield. We define ourselves by our output.

For a long time focusing on production worked just fine – there was always more bush to tame and more customers to sell to. 

When we finally had no more room to grow outwards we formed science, business and government alliances to drive productivity inside the model. Through innovation, more-from-more became more-from-less. 

It’s only now, rapidly confronted by a strained and more complex food system, that we recognise its limitations.

On-farm environmental costs such as water degradation and biodiversity loss undermine the social licence to operate and climate change threatens production through increased drought and flooding. On-shelf, disruptive alternative foods intend to upend the market through brute force efficiency and price, supported by a pick-your-reason-to-switch list that includes environmentalism, animal ethics, health and social status.

Challenges aside, we need to honestly answer Rothe’s grandfather’s question – has productivism made farming better? 

While delivering record production our rural heartlands have suffered painful declines in talent, social mobility and cohesion. 

That rural NZ is still such an incredible place to live is a testament to the people holding our communities together. The breakdown is not the fault of farmers but of a system hooked on cheap food and blind to the social and environmental costs of its production. 

When we start to look for it productivism is everywhere. Take for example, the methane-limiting vaccine for sheep and cattle now in development. Despite good intentions, it’s an example of more-from-less innovation that puts the product before people and leaves serious questions about value unanswered. How will our customers feel about us warping our animal’s digestive system? Is this treating our animals with dignity? 

We’re at a fork in the road.

Different parts of the industry are calling for change in their own ways. Farmers want to tell their story, sector leaders strategise on shifting from price-takers to price-makers and pioneering farmers are building new models grounded in kaitiakitanga (guardianship). 

At this pivotal fork in the road we need to do two things – reconnect with the core values of farming and frame the choices ahead. 

To reconnect with core values, ask a farmer why they do it. The answer isn’t stocking rates or profit margins. Those are important but the why of farming is family, community, growing healthy food and caring for the land. 

Framing the other road is more difficult but Kiwi professors Eric Pawson’s and Harvey Perkin’s concept of a relationships economy is a good place to start. 

Contrasting the commodity-based productivism of the dairy industry with the revival of Merino wool they describe how value is not about scaling up but scaling across the people and places our products touch. 

For Merino and its signature Icebreaker garments value is co-produced across the chain through deep customer insight and advocacy, overseas relationships, transparency and provenance storytelling.

When we imagine food production as a web of relationships we start to see new potential for economic value. Already, the seeds of value capture can be seen in community-supported agriculture or direct-to-consumer food and fibre brands. 

Carbon forestry is proving that using land for collective environmental gains can generate returns. Community-led catchment groups are improving local waterways. Regenerative farmers are proving the holistic system can be profitable and a better way to farm. 

In the same way that the Government’s living standards framework will help us see society as more than an economic engine we need to start prioritising the soft parts of our food system.

These are long-term value investments like producer-customer connection, urban-rural community links, environmental progress, on-farm biodiversity, animal ethics and international leadership. 

As we eye up this new road, I’m optimistic. 

The world is urbanising, digitising and modernising at a blistering pace. 

Every day we give a little more of ourselves to the algorithms, platforms and devices in the name of convenience. This shift only makes the core values of farming more precious – connection to the land, being humbled by the elements, tradition, caring for animals and wildlife, environmental regeneration, nourishing people. 

We live in the age of vegan Burger King and doctors prescribing nature to ease the anxieties of modern life. In this world we’ll find new value in farming when we focus on people, not production.

As we brace ourselves for the challenges ahead – adapting to climate change, safeguarding our biodiversity, sustainably feeding Kiwis – farmers will be our heroes. 

Their actions flow through our food system and impact our personal health and collective environment. While the big decisions might be made in city boardrooms it will be farmers who get in the mud and get the job done.

Daniel Eb is the founder of Dirt Road Comms, a communications agency focused on transforming our food system and the rural New Zealand story.

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