Having one farm assurance scheme that rules them all is not likely to be the case any time soon, but making schemes more acceptable to farmers and consumers is a worthy goal.
A recent Our Land and Water white paper on farm assurance schemes took a deep dive into the labyrinth of systems to find how schemes can be enhanced to improve both farmers’ right to continue to operate and consumer acceptance of chosen farm practices.
Paper co-writer Professor Pavel Castka of the University of Canterbury said while a single scheme would appear ideal, there are simply too many actors involved in the food supply network to make it realistic.
The authors found a concerning level of cynicism exists around schemes. That comes both from farmers feeling compelled to complete multiple entries of the same data for assorted agencies, and from consumers who have become more informed about failings in certification schemes.
“An example of that could be consumers learning through a news story about illegally logged timber that ends up being included in a forest stewardship approved supply.”
In the United States a certification scandal on seafood revealed almost half that country’s seafood was mislabelled.
“So, consumers do start to question if these are just one-off things, or are they part of a larger problem. For anyone it is hard to make a good judgment on that.”
The authors found through a combination of adopting modern technology and combining elements of what iwi are doing, better assurance systems could be developed.
Background monitoring of key environmental data, for example, could mean the upfront results, the outcomes of farm management, are the focus, rather than the “tick box” approach most assurance schemes demand to achieve that outcome.
“If you look globally at top assurance schemes, this is increasingly what they are defining their success by: the impact they have had, not the procedure used to achieve that.”
Meantime iwi landowners and primary producers are working on their own assurance schemes, adopting high levels of tech for monitoring, with full details still under wraps.
“And often with iwi they will work hard on building relationships and trust, alongside the business they are building too.”
Castka said this does much to capture more of a human element in assurance schemes, something many said is increasingly missing as online box ticking and form filling become more prevalent.
“And that trust building is something some companies are doing well with their schemes.”
The report cites Synlait’s Lead with Pride as a scheme where the auditors were recognised as understanding dairying and assisted with ensuring the entire process was professional.
But even it had issues identified by farmers, including the risk of simply ticking boxes, and being only a snapshot of the operation at one time on one day.
The authors also identified farmers’ frustration at having to comply with more schemes, spreading further beyond food safety and environmental concerns to include aspects such as modern slavery and labour exploitation.
They said the government could play a big part in streamlining operations and information demands better across its agencies. Tight fiscal constraints meant NZ is cutting it fine when it comes to resourcing its assurance activities across its multiple agencies, and risks falling behind the rest of the world.
The use of technology can also help make assurance schemes more pertinent and effective in identifying and highlighting those areas in a catchment or a country that need more attention to deliver the right outcome than others.
“One example is the Eco-Index developed as part of the Biological Heritage national science challenge.”
Using the index, backed by artificial intelligence tools capable of assessing biodiversity from satellite and aerial imagery, it is possible to define ecological hotspots that may stand out as needing more attention than others.
Integrating such a tool with assurance schemes could provide a means to show farmers in some catchments are already delivering on aspects like biodiversity or water quality, while helping identify those in areas needing specific work.
Meantime incorporating more of a Māori world view into assurance schemes also provides some aspirational assurance models.
This includes learning from iwi groups that have built comprehensive monitoring systems for reporting into their collective ownership, while framing them around Māori values and relationship building, all which could provide some clues for non-iwi schemes in the future.
The full report can be read here