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Putting down new roots, part four: Taupo Beef and Lamb shares progressive views from the paddock

 – Read part one in this series, here, part two, here, and part three, here

It’s difficult to stomach New Zealand without livestock farming. It’s ubiquitous to our country where strewn across our landscapes are herds of bovine and sheep. And maybe we don’t need to. As many agree, there is still room to farm animals on New Zealand land. It’s just how we operate it. Similar to the land stewardship of P?mu – Taupo Beef and Lamb have acclimated to solve some environmental tensions. It has capped livestock numbers to limit nitrogen entering the lake, culled growth hormones or the use of antibiotics on their livestock, and the animals are grass-fed as opposed to grain fed, among many other strategies to lower its carbon footprint. We share a Q+A with its farmers, Mike and Sharon Barton, who address the meaty issues of tomorrow.

What are some of Taupo Beef and Lambs strategies to ensure a more sustainable future of farming?

All ‘Taupo Catchment’ farmers have accepted a cap on livestock numbers in perpetuity and all farmers supplying ‘Taupo Beef and Lamb’ are audited annually by Waikato Regional Council to ensure they are fully compliant with the legislation designed to protect Lake Taupo’s water quality. We are sharing the cost of protecting Lake Taupo with consumers, through their willingness to pay a premium that recognises what ‘Taupo Catchment’ farmers have done.

What are some of the biggest challenges currently facing the farming community?

The real price that food producers receive for what they grow, has steadily declined over the last 60+ years. Food (in real inflation-adjusted terms) is cheaper now, than in any time in human history. Yet, the costs of producing food has climbed inexorably – food producers response to those cost increases, given that markets have demanded ever lower prices, has been to grow more from their land, to stay ahead of rising costs and to stay in business: more rice/ha, more broccoli/carrots per season, more cattle/ha. We are reaching the environmental limits of that approach to food production and distribution.

Consumers have never been asked to pay the environmental costs associated with the food they eat. Most countries use subsidies to hide the real price of food from consumers. We are not able to do that in New Zealand. If food producers are expected to meet all the costs to the environment here in New Zealand, then there is a real risk that food production will be driven off-shore.

What new tools are being used to help farmers be more transparent and more accountable for their inputs?

Independent auditing of all farming practices is the only way to provide assurance to consumers that the true costs of food production are identified. The bigger question is, are consumers willing to meet those costs? Taupo Catchment farmers are expected to put all their inputs and outputs into a computer model called ‘Overseer’ to ensure they are farming within their (NDA) Nitrogen Discharge Allowance.

In the face of synthetic biology and alternative proteins, how can farmers best participate in the new era of agriculture?

I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that question yet. My feeling is that we need to know the true environmental and health costs of synthetic foods and alternative proteins, and then measure them against fully audited conventional foods and allow consumers to make an informed choice.

We have consistently struggled to attach appropriate value to our dairy and meat products. How is ‘Taupo Beef and Lamb’ trying to elevate animal products into a niche and premium position, in turn, how does that effect your farming operations?

Society has never internalised the true environmental costs of our dairy and meat products into the price we ask consumers to pay. We have essentially spent generations telling consumers that food is cheap. It will take at least a generation to change buying behaviour. ‘Taupo Beef’ builds in about 40 percent of the costs of protecting Lake Taupo into the price we charge consumers – they would not yet pay the full cost. So Taupo Beef and Lamb’s farmers and consumers are jointly meeting the water quality costs. We have built a niche position, largely through the way we relate to everyone in the value chain, particularly with consumers. We are transparent and honest: we have no choice. We have accepted a cap in perpetuity, so we cannot increase the amount of meat we grow per hectare – our only option is to grow the ‘value’ of our meat. We have added other critical brand values as consumers have asked for them, such as: no antibiotics, no growth hormones, animals are only fed on fodder produced on farm, no imported supplements such as palm kernel, free range systems with high standards of animal welfare. The biggest success of the Taupo Beef and Lamb brand is the conversation we are having with consumers, so that we truly understand each other’s world.

Some have argued that in the future, farmed livestock meat will be reserved for the rich, and synthetic or plant-based alternatives will be eaten by the middle to lower-class societies. Is this a future you see? 

We see the future as a place where we all consume less meat, but of a higher quality backed by fully audited claims. If we are to internalise all environmental costs into food prices (including synthetic or plant-based foods) I am not sure what the ‘real price’ of food will be. But, merely adding greenhouse gas costs into food prices as the Government is currently considering will significantly increase the price to consumers.

What is the methodology behind having less animals on farms leading to less impact on the planet?  And how do you maintain that ethos with growing demand?

The debate is much broader than less animals. All food production has an environmental impact, such as rice growing releases significant levels of methane. My understanding is that approximately 1/3 of our individual impact on the planet comes from growing the food that feeds each of us. It is likely to be our biggest single impact, unless we travel overseas a lot. Therefore, the more appropriate question is:  what are we all going to do about the issue of less intensive food systems? Just blaming the world’s food producers, while driving the price of food down, is not going to produce solutions.

Have you felt a feeling willingness from fellow farmers to diversify from animal farming to to cultivating forestry or plant-based crops where necessary?

Farmers have always changed food production systems in response to market signals. Kiwifruit, avocados, deer farming, sheep milking and M?nuka honey are some of the changes in recent decades. Forestry brings its own challenges particularly on hill country (like the Gisborne floods and forestry slash recently) If the science is robust, the market signals include a retail price that internalises environmental costs then farmers will change rapidly. If the science is absent, or we don’t get a clear policy framework, that inhibits farmer’s appetite for risk. If consumers expect all the environmental costs to be borne by the producer, farmers will exit the sector.

What does the next generation of farmers look like in New Zealand?

That depends on the next generation of consumers. Legislators have not proved willing to really tackle these issues. Consumers hold the key but must take some responsibility themselves.

How can our agricultural systems in New Zealand be more geared for the next revolution of farming?

By seriously investing in ‘food production’ science and engaging deeply with consumers, to the point where trust is rebuilt. Food has traditionally brought cultures and people together, and food producers and consumers have traditionally been very closely aligned. Currently, food producers are often maligned by consumers – food is driving us apart. We need to sit around the table and share our experiences and values openly, within a climate where we all agree to change. That will ensure New Zealand will drive the next revolution in food production. Blaming others and avoiding our own personal contribution to the issue will produce more of the same.

The full platter:

As Yuval Noah Harari proclaimed in his book – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – “This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.” – Now, centuries later we face the same predicament. As some have pointed out: the need for sustenance continues to be hinged on an increasingly unpredictable environment. For New Zealand, a country built on animal farming, feeding the planet in the face of environmental destruction looks to be a mammoth task. But slowly our systems are changing. Albeit on the farm – or in the lab – a mosaic of progressive businesses have forged a new culture of environmental responsibility. Both in the form of newly coined industries, such as cannabis and plant based meats, but also within our traditional farming communities, who have a devotion to the land they farm on.

Review overview