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Three takeaways from Global Food and Fibre Agri-Conference

More than 600 gathered in person in Otautahi, Christchurch last week for the “Transforming the Global Food & Fibre System” conference organised by Boma New Zealand.  This is a yearly gathering of people who are focussed on what the future may hold for the future of the farming industry.  This year it was held in combination with IFAMA, the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association.

There were three key themes that stood out which also interlinked the dozens of speakers who shared over the days of the conference, so let’s explore them here.

Theme one: The Future is Technology driven

One of the first speakers was international expert Aidan Connolly from AgriTech Capital who noted that tech companies were transforming entire industries and that farming will also be affected.  He made the point that the biggest technology companies don’t even own what they do – the largest taxi company owning no taxis (Uber), the largest accommodation provider owning no property (Airbnb), the largest movie house owns no cinemas (Netflix) – among other examples. 

He described how we are dealing with more and more “unknown unknowns” but described a technology tsunami which is arriving to help farmers and explained that more will change in the coming year or two than has changed in decades.  This is down to key disruptive new technologies such as the use of drones, improved feed efficiency, monitoring of animals, use of sensors, robotics to help efficiency and AI to help provide constant monitoring of animals.  His encouragement was simple: the survivors in farming will be those who adopt technology the fastest.

Marcos Fava Neves from Brazil discussed a similar theme focusing on the Future of Food Business and the “Imperative of Sustainability”.  Drawing from his book on that theme he noted our era is full of four Vs: Variables, Varying, Violently and Volatility.  Those words were chosen due to the increase of factors like adverse weather events, inflation, pandemics, wars, labour shortages breaks in supply chains.

He said that lots will be changing in the next 10 years as populations increase and demand rises as well.  While markets will grow, the reality is that prices will go up and down, so the key will be using technology to ensure there is sustainability.

Theme two: But the future also learns from the past and deeper principles  

That emphasis on the use of technology was in contrast to another theme that shone through: not forgetting the past.  A panel of Maori leaders explored the theme of what we can learn about the future and transformation from indigenous thinking – mātauranga Māori. 

The panel was made up of an experienced group of people such as John Reid (Ngāi Tahu), Miriana Stephens (Ngāti Rārua, Ngāiterangi, Ngāti Ranginui), Jan Hania (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga) and Dr Jay Whitehead (Ngāi Tahu), who shared their perspectives.  A theme that stood out from what they said is that sometimes we need to go back into the past to really know what we should do in the future. 

While previous speakers and panels had considered the role of technology, AI, drones and the value of that for increased food production, this panel asked whether we would lose something if we just focus on what technology makes possible.  Should we always target producing more, or can we go back to slower more long term and sustainable ways of growing our food as well?

Read more: AgTech proves farming and tech is a match made in heaven

In another session Lisa Tumahai who is the Chair of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Deputy Chair of the Climate Change Commission, talked about the “Future of Food and Fibre: An intergenerational approach”.  She explained the challenges and approach by Ngāi Tahu Farming.  In particular she noted that when we think about the future of food and fibre need to do so in the context of climate change (see theme three below) and also that in our decision making we must think about the generations to come, and consider what we are leaving for them.  What does it look like to think with a 500 year vision?

That intergenerational approach includes placing values first and she spoke of the following being important points of guidance: Whanaungatana (family), Manaakitanga (looking after our people), Tohungatanga (expertise), Kaitiakitanga (stewardship), Tikanga (appropriate action) and Rangatiratanga (leadership).  The need is to innovate and make production more sustainable, so reducing negative impact now for a better future.

Theme three: The climate change driver

A final theme which underpinned many speakers was the impact of climate change.  How will farming adapt and change when the weather is unpredictable and the future of a region may involve different climate conditions than the past? 

An example of this focus was Mike Casey who talked about his approach to cherry farming in Otago.  A tech entrepreneur, he got into farming after that career, without a lot of background on what being a farmer involved.  That meant he also didn’t come with any preconceptions about what was possible.  He shared how he has targeted creating the world’s first 100% zero fossil-fuel orchard.  Among different ways he is trying to achieve this has involved going electric with his equipment.  Another example was Ben Scales, who shared about the work of KiwiFibre, a startup from Christchurch which is focussing on using Harakeke (flax) and developing it as a viable product and alternative to carbon heavy plastics. 

Aimee Blake and Finn Ross are the Co-chairs of Future Farmers and they shared about their vision for the future of agriculture, and the next generation being involved in that future.  They spoke of positive solutions and policies that align with the recognition of climate change and the need for the triple Ps to be considered – planet, profit, people.  

In the evening there was a showcase of those who had been part of the “Food Fibre Agritech Challenge” competition which was hosted by the University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship (UCE) in association with ChristchurchNZ.  The interesting thing in this was how many of the companies had climate change in mind with what they were offering. 

This is just a small snapshot of the many speakers who spoke but it also encapsulates some of the key themes that intertwined through each of the sessions.  While the future of technology and the role it would play to increase efficiency of production and combat climate change was critical, there were also other countering themes to that which called us back to deeper principles from our past.  Perhaps underlying this was the need to realise that we are part of the Earth and it is not a resource to exploit but instead there is a relationship to recognise so that we can grown our agricultural in a sustainable way.

Steven Moe is an author, podcaster and partner at Parry Field Lawyers, solving legal problems for companies and purpose driven organisations. He hosts Seeds Podcast with more than 340 interviews of inspiring people and wrote the book, ‘Laying Foundations for Reimagining Business’.

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