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Covid could restore trust in science

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It’s a difficult pill for scientists to swallow, but former special agricultural trade envoy Mike Petersen believes people no longer trust science like they used to.
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Mike Petersen | November 17, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

Instead, that trust had been placed in the hands of communities, influencers and other groups of people, Petersen said while speaking during the NZ Grasslands Association’s annual conference held online for the first time.

“In the population unfortunately, science is losing its impact, relevance and meaning,” he said.

Consumers, who he described as “king, queen and jack,” were more likely to believe the views of these people and groups on matters such as climate change and sustainability.

He says the debate over glyphosate usage in Europe was a classic example of this.

“We need to make sure and be aware that we are relevant to the consumer,” he said.

The covid-19 outbreak could also be an opportunity for people to renew their faith in science, he said.

“There are vast tracts of people around the world who still don’t trust science. We need to restore that and covid-19 might help,” he said.

New Zealand’s success in managing covid-19 has been internationally noticed and has enhanced the country’s reputation for tackling difficult challenges.

“There are benefits for brand NZ but we need to navigate new ways of doing business in a travel-constrained world,” he said.

“I think there is a new world order and I think there’s a permanent change and it’s not something that will revert to type once covid-19 is over.”

Petersen says 2020 has been a tipping point for demography and environmental concerns.

Millennials and Generation Z now represented 31% and 32% of the global population respectively.

NZ producers needed to think about these new consumers when it took its products to the world.

“They are value-driven, influencer-led and very technologically enabled,” he said.

Consumer expectations were much higher around climate change and environmental concerns.

In countries like the United States, whose government backed out of the Paris Accords on climate change, its consumers are pushing ahead in wanting and demanding zero emissions food.

“We need to get on this bus and we ignore it at our peril,” he said.

The future of farming will focus on systems that put people at its heart and fulfil requirements around animal welfare, climate change, water quality and biodiversity.

“If we are going to stay relevant to the world, we have to look at the future of farming through this type of lens,” he said.

While none of that frightened Petersen, he knew it would be a challenge for some farmers, but he was confident the industry was up to the task.

The Primary Sector Council’s Te Taiao framework was something the farming industry could use as a way to define regenerative farming.

“It’s something we can use to define our set of practices, our values and behaviour into a unique selling proposition,” he said.

“Te Taiao could be our version of regenerative farming. It doesn’t need to be a recipe that comes from other countries.

“Very often in New Zealand we have been doing what needs to be done, but one of the things I think we have missed out on is packaging that into a decent story to take to the world.”

That sentiment was backed by Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, who says NZ’s farmers must align with the values and expectations of its overseas customers.

“What we are being told by our processors and marketers is that regenerative agriculture has swept the world,” she said.

If NZ farmers were already very good, Rowarth questioned what it meant to get better.

She says some of the regenerative practices being promoted overseas may not achieve the desired result if applied in NZ.

“We are concerned that some of the tools being promoted will erode our efficiencies,” she said.

NZ consumers wanted a reduced impact per hectare of product, while overseas consumers wanted a reduced impact per mouthful of product.

Rowarth says the two measurements are quite different.

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