As demand grows, so can NZ's role in food production

Populations are increasing, resources are being depleted, uncertainty in food production is escalating, and food security – access to enough – is a global issue. New Zealand could have a role to play. This won’t be in feeding the world directly, but might be in assisting other countries to achieve sustainable, efficient food production systems, and in the process improve systems in New Zealand.

Food security encompasses affordability, availability and quality. The food riots of 2008 and 2011 in more than two dozen countries were a reaction to huge price swings in staple crops. New Zealanders didn’t riot, but have been vocal about food price increases for some time. Although food as a proportion of income has decreased year-on-year and the global population overall is better fed than 50 years ago, people have forgotten.

That’s probably because for developed countries, food security has not been a concern since the 1960s, when massive gains in yield and on-going technological developments based on scientific research meant that food became more plentiful and cheaper.  That situation is looking less and less assured as population growth strains resources.

The potential to meet food demand by increasing the amount of land in production is limited.  This is due to the investment costs involved, a lack of the right kind of land, and –where there is land  – competition for its use from urban and industrial expansion.

Increasing productivity from existing agricultural land is the key to maintaining the world’s food supply.

This was the focus of the OECD’s FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012, released in July. The authors suggest bridging the yield gap, i.e., bringing developing countries up to yield potential, is part of the answer – but that pushing the frontiers of production with new technologies should be the main goal.

New Zealand can assist in closing that yield gap.

Current agricultural production systems in New Zealand are more productive, and more efficient in terms of environmental impact, than in most countries. Outlook 2012 indicates that New Zealand’s nutrient surpluses (a surplus equating to a potential loss to the environment) are the lowest in the world. Overseas research (confirmed by that in New Zealand) shows that we are also in the lowest greenhouse gas production per kilogram of product category (for non-housed animals). Of further interest is that precision agriculture, including irrigation, is advanced. We also have considerable experience with technology transfer and knowledge extension systems through levy bodies, researchers and private consultants. This means we can transfer great information effectively.

All of these factors make New Zealand an obvious port-of-call – and not just for developing countries.

This thinking is supported by A Call to Arms: a contribution to a New Zealand Agri-food strategy released at the end of July. Lead author Dr Kevin Marshall suggests that as a world leader in agricultural production systems and processing, New Zealand can and should help other countries improve their agribusinesses. At the same time we should be able to leverage intellectual capital offshore to bring benefits for New Zealand and other countries.

Pushing the frontiers of productivity could be more of a problem. Agricultural Outlook 2012 highlighted the potential of biotechnology to assist in achieving gains. Biotech crops are now grown in 29 countries because of the benefits of efficient water use, reduction in use of chemicals (pesticides) and fuel, plus decreased soil erosion. They aren’t grown in New Zealand, but in conjunction with our efficient production systems, could, with research, lead to major advances.

There is so much more we could do not only to bolster our own food security and supply but also take a leading global role in the issue…but we simply don’t spend enough on agricultural research. This is one of the reasons why New Zealand languishes in 11th place on the Global Food Security Index 2012, produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit.  In fact, the parlous state of global funding on agricultural R&D in the 1980s and 90s is part of the reason the world finds its food security under peril.

New Zealand’s role in feeding the world lies in working with other countries in achieving sustainable agricultural production systems and developing new ideas and resource-efficient thinking for making a difference.  The R&D and technology transfer that we have already recognised as being fundamental to improving agricultural productivity have been highlighted as being vital for the world.

Agricultural Outlook 2012 suggests that governments should be setting policy to encourage improved agronomic practices, create the right commercial, technical and regulatory environment and strengthen the agriculture innovation system through research, education and extension. Adoption of technologies will be vital and biotechnologies could assist in protecting the environment while ensuring that high quality food is still affordable and available. New Zealand could show the way.

 This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.