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Putting down new roots, part one: How Hikurangi Enterprises is sowing the future of New Zealand farming

Our farming systems stand on the precipice of intense change. The task of how to feed a growing population that is set to reach 10 billion people by 2050 in the face of climate change, resource scarcity, and land degradation has forced innovation to spur. Scientists and technologists have blown the whistle on traditional farming methods and subsequently, new systems of agriculture have emerged. Plant-based meats have sprouted, cellular agriculture and alternative protein products have spread across supermarkets and fast food joints, and farmers have more environmental accountability. Thankfully, strides in technological development have opened the gates for a fourth agricultural revolution, but will New Zealand – with its national identity that’s deeply entrenched in traditional farming methods – be willing to move with it? In part one of a series, Findlay Buchanan talks to Hikurangi Enterprises, one of the companies growing the pastures of agricultural posterity.

Since the 1970s and 1980s, farmers have skipped through fields of highly unregulated markets, matching a population boom with greater production. The result forged our most successful tradeable exports – dairy and meat – while feeding the masses at a relatively low cost, and arguably generated one of the most productive and efficient farming sectors in the world.

However, while such relentless pursuit of growth provided short-term benefits, the environmental damage this is doing to New Zealand’s landscapes is increasingly concerning. And many have issued warnings that our farming sector has reached its social, environmental, and economic limits.

As media coverage of these consequences of traditional farming methods increase, so too does consumer awareness. The Guardian announced earlier this year that not consuming meat or dairy is the single biggest way to reduce your carbon footprint, while other confronting statistics have been well publicised, too: agriculture accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas house emissions, it’s the worst polluters of waterways globally, using 70 percent of fresh water usage, and strikingly, 40 percent of arable land surface worldwide has been cleared for livestock production.

In a New Zealand context, the latest productivity commission report shows that dairy is a particular pain point. The beleaguered sector accounts for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions from land use and, as Rod Oram wrote to Newsroom, by far the biggest contributor to rising agricultural emissions over the past 25 years. None of this even grazes the slew of health risks to both humans and animals, nor the issues of animal welfare that plague the industry.

According to The Atlantic, despite the increasing documentation of factory farming, various vegetarian movements and specified research into the harms of eating meat, humans are still eating more of it than ever. Whatever the reality is, despite the numerous consequences attached to eating meat, most of us turn a blind eye as we’re too besotted by a tender sirloin.

So, the issue of how to sustain this enterprise for future generations is a sensitive discussion filled with polarity. Where to from here? Perhaps it’s not a case of pointing fingers and calling out traditional organisations, but instead starting a conversation about a shared future between scientists, farmers, start-ups and technologists alike. Therefore, we cast an optimistic lens on the opportunities that lie ahead in the potential adaptations to the industry, and the pioneers behind them.

The seed yet to sprout

One area that hasn’t yet taken off but is set to grow in terms of agricultural opportunity in New Zealand is the budding cannabis industry. Following extensive research into its health benefits, success in overseas markets, strong support from the public as well as huge investment by international companies, a green rush of cannabis companies has emerged.  Although the industry still relies on a pending medicinal cannabis bill that’s due to be announced next year, the signs look promising, leading local companies to ready themselves to break entirely new ground.

While many have been quick off the mark to enter into the prosperous market, Hikurangi Enterprises is possibly the most meaningful. The social enterprise is based in Ruatōria on the East Coast of Gisborne and plans to incorporate job creation and economic development into its rohe. While its local community is at the heart of Hikurangi, its future looks bright both nationally, and internationally. In August, it managed to secure New Zealand’s first license to grow medicinal cannabis and has since started the construction of high-tech greenhouses and processing facilities to breed cannabis strains and start conducting trials into New Zealand made medical cannabis products. It has also received a generous sum of investment. Tellingly, its biggest contribution was from local community on the East Coast – one of the poorest in New Zealand – who collectively invested over $1 million. Additionally, it reached the PledgeMe $2 million cap in just 16 minutes. But it hasn’t been all highs for Hikurangi. Reports suggest its critical $180 million deal with Seattle based Rhizo sciences collapsed, and it may have left its investors in the dark on this. Nevertheless, it says it has since signed a new letter of intent of a larger volume with an unnamed San Diego company. So, as Hikurangi continues to travel through the trials and tribulations of the burgeoning cannabis industry, just like any crop, the environmental benefits of growing cannabis depend on the decisions made in the cultivation, harvesting, post-harvesting and production phases.

Founder Manu Caddie is quick to point out a few: the importance of where it is grown, what chemical inputs are used for pesticide control, plant disease control, and plant grow stimulants, the amount of water and power used by other inputs as well as the discharges they create, how waste material is managed, among many other technicalities. 

Caddie says, “Cannabis generally likes a similar climate to humans – that can be created indoors or outdoors over the warmer half of the year. It grows outdoors from the deep south to the far north – preferring good water to the roots but dry conditions to humid climates that create mould and disease.”

Hikurangi plans to yield five to six cycles indoors and two cycles outdoors every year with the aspiration to have hundreds, and possibly thousands, of hectares under cultivation within two years.

Despite much of the attention on its cannabis arm, Hikurangi has a much wider vision. It looks to cultivate a variety of land use options to ensure healthy whānau and healthy whenua.

Caddie says, “Our big vision is for most of the East Coast to revert to permanent native land cover, with indigenous species repopulating the landscape as it was prior to humans destroying it.

“Such a vision is based on the intrinsic value of our unique biodiversity in Aotearoa and the ecological heritage of Te Tairāwhiti in particular. To achieve such a vision, we have to create sustainable financial incentives for land owners to choose indigenous reversion either because they have sufficient income from other sources or because native plants have a monetary value. Value from natives can be developed in a number of areas.

“The way the market and regulations have developed is a nightmare, but hopefully lessons can be learnt and mistakes not repeated for other products. We’re focusing on kanuka honey and oil opportunities now.”

Furthermore, he emphasises the importance of attaching value to its products – a perennial struggle for New Zealand producers – and points to Mānuka honey as ‘the poster child’ for the potential of native species as high value products.

We’ll never compete internationally if it is just a commodity. Lessons from the kiwifruit industry and agriculture show how we can be global leaders if the emphasis is on developing and owning the best genetics and utilising our great science community and globally trusted brand as a safe and environmentally sustainable country – and making sure we actually move from perception to reality.”

Caddie says they are working hard with land owners, scientists and marketers to identify new opportunities for natural health products to be developed from indigenous species of plants, and believes there are hundreds of indigenous organisms that were traditionally used for a range of beneficial purposes with many more opportunities still to be discovered.

“We’re also working hard on carbon farming opportunities – connecting with emitters who want to support more than just more pine plantation forests. We’re connecting with other indigenous carbon farmers overseas and global companies looking for premium carbon credits that can support indigenous tree planting by indigenous communities here.”

“There are other opportunities in native regeneration – things like long-term native plantations with selective harvesting, eco-tourism and the like but bioactive extracts, including honey and oil, and carbon farming seem the most obvious ways to generate value for land owners as we try to redevelop the indigenous land cover.”

While Hikurangi is very much its own entity, Caddie believes fellow farmers, particularly on the East Coast, are open to the idea of cannabis.

“There is a huge amount of interest on the Coast as we don’t have any dairy – it’s all drystock farming. Much of the land is unsuitable for a crop like cannabis, but nearly everyone has a couple of hectares of flat land that could have greenhouses on it, and that could subsidise the other parts of the farm to go into natives.”

There is also the matter of synergy between Hikurangi and fellow land owners up and down the coast. As NZ Geographic rightly points out, it is critical to understand the cause and effect of land usage, to know that planting crops in one area, could subsequently aid – or injure – ecosystems in neighbouring valleys, estuaries, or rivers.

Caddie says, “Access to accurate information is a huge challenge. We got a consultant to look at options for the 130 hectare block I live on, but he really had to scratch around to find good information on the wide variety of alternatives that we could consider for the block.

“He has compiled that into a report that we share with other local land owners as the other big challenge is economies of scale – it’s no good us just getting into growing nut trees or harakeke unless we have neighbours in the same valley or at the same district also producing the same crops so we can supply the market at scale and share the costs of common infrastructure like machinery, storage or processing facilities.”

Asked if he expects to see cannabis or hemp farming replace our dairy and meat sectors, Caddie says, “Dairy and meat will continue on for some time, but consumer preferences are changing quickly and my kids’ generation will have no qualms about buying lab grown food which will be heaps cheaper, much more nutritious and much better for the environment. So, our traditional agricultural export industry is a sunset industry that New Zealand has relied on for 100 years and is the early stages of extinction. I’m not sure just cannabis or hemp will replace meat and dairy, but plant-based products based on innovation and new technology has to be the focus right now for massive R&D investment, both public and private.”

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