The role of rural professionals in the sustainable future of New Zealand’s primary sector was the focus of a food, farming and freshwater event held in Canterbury.
Facilitated by the NZ Landcare Trust and Our Land and Water (OLW) National Science Challenge, the event explored local scenarios with practical applications.
OLW director Jenny Webster-Brown said the 11 National Science Challenge projects aim to develop practical resources to help farmers add diversity, increase resilience and tackle environmental challenges for their farm, catchment and community.
“This was always to be a fixed term experiment with $96 million to go for eight years on mission-led research, finishing in June 2024. The replacement at the end is the big question, at this stage,” she said.
To date 75% of the funding has gone to researchers in collaborative research teams for projects focused on how to use land better in a way that does not damage New Zealand’s water.
“Although much of our funding is allocated to scientists and other researchers, we also appreciate and acknowledge the ability of Kiwi farmers to solve their own problems has moved way beyond innovative ways with No 8 fencing wire.”
To support on-farm innovations, OLW launched its Rural Professionals Fund in 2021, tasked with connecting innovative farmers and entrepreneurs with the researchers who can help assess and develop their ideas and with rural professionals who can share the ideas with other farmers.
“This fund is for the rapid testing of innovative ideas that could enable Kiwi farmers to identify new ways to take care of their land and protect their sustainable farming legacy.”
Over a two-year period the fund assisted 27 projects.
“Funded projects all have one thing in common: that proof of concept could create wider benefits for NZ farming communities, our land, or our water.
“It’s about sowing the seeds for a pathway forward: think pieces, think working groups, research programmes, strategic and extension initiatives for rural professionals, scientists and farmers to work together.
“After June next year we won’t be here to help you find information but we will do everything in our power to help make sure all our research funds have a home before June 28, 2024,” Webster-Brown said.
One project researched the ability to provide a sustainable and healthy diet by adapting land use in NZ, looking at whether the raw ingredients for this optimal diet can be grown in the country in an affordable way that meets targets for reducing water contaminants and greenhouse gas emissions.
In his project address to the forum, AgResearch soil scientist Richard McDowell said much is unknown about where NZ has to get to by 2030.
“We hear a lot of political influence on GHG and He Waka Eke Noa [HWEN] but … achieving targets in a generation is more realistic than a timeframe of three to five years.”
The modelling exercise showed that shifting productive land uses to support a healthy, domestically produced diet for the NZ population can support meeting environmental targets for GHGs, nitrogen and phosphorus.
“Meeting the freshwater target also met our climate target, but not the other way around. An additional 14-26% reduction in N and P loads would be required.”
The maximum cost of the changes is about 1% of the primary sector’s export revenues, which McDowell suggested could likely be recouped with productivity gains, having negligible impact on export revenue.
The consumption of a healthy diet is projected to save the health sector $14-$20 billion.
“Considered as an agri-food system, NZ can improve its health and its environment while saving money,” McDowell said.
Rural environment consultant Simon Stokes said rural professionals have a huge role to play in revitalising te Taiao, the natural environment that contains and surrounds us.
“Rural professionals are connected in many ways to people and the environment and are increasingly required under legislation to engage and co-design with local rūnanga, hapu and iwi.
“Revitalising te Taiao, respecting that all knowledge starts as local knowledge, through engagement and connection looks at how solutions can be tailored to fit the local context of production, economy, community and environment alongside those groups.”
Respecting all knowledges, engaging and co-designing, collaboration and participation, including highlighting power imbalances and protecting interests, is the way to move forward in this challenging space, Stokes said.
“Do your homework on your role and work ahead, lean on regional councils and rūnanga for information.
“It’s one hell of a journey, challenging but rewarding in deepening the ability of rural NZ to thrive into the future.”