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What is Sustainable Farming?
The definition of sustainable farming is constantly evolving and Aotearoa’s farmers want to lead the move to a more sustainable future.
On-farm sustainability covers environmental components, social and cultural elements, governance and economic aspects.
Being sustainable = being responsible and thoughtful in the management of the environment, animals, and people.
Why is sustainable farming so important?
Social licence to operate is a big part of this. The dairy industry was forced to do a lot of work in this space already, and we’ve seen huge improvements in a short space of time.
But the entire primary sector realises that there needs to be improvement across the board and that the public, and therefore the consumer, expects this.
Sustainable farming practice will ensure our ability to farm for generations to come. It is also about protecting the good things that come with farming in New Zealand. Including our sense of identity.
Sustainable farming is the right thing to do. But what is it, exactly?
Sustainability in farming is a complex idea. It covers many aspects, including the financial (a sustainable farm should be a profitable business for the farmer); the social and cultural (it should foster our rural identity and encompass Te Ao Māori – the Māori worldview); along with the environmental aspects.
Environmental sustainability focuses on responsible and thoughtful management of natural resources. Among other things, this involves:
- Reducing carbon emissions
- Minimising water, air, and soil pollution
- Promoting biodiversity
- Managing water carefully
Regulating sustainability on-farm is still relatively new, but a transformation is already taking place. Many farmers are already implementing good sustainability practices.
The current New Zealand Government has a focus on sustainability. There is new legislation being rolled out from now through to 2025.
The draft advice from the Climate Change Commission has also recently been released. Its goal is to get New Zealand to net zero carbon by 2050.
Overall, farmers know they need to move now; there is a sense of urgency and a lot of work happening in this space.
Challenges to improving on-farm sustainability include:
- Farmers facing constant market and regulatory pressure.
- A wide range of landscapes and farm types in New Zealand.
- Additional concepts being introduced into the legislation. For instance, Te Mana o te Wai, which can mean different things to different people.
- Making regulations robust without excessive complication
Farmers are ready to embrace the new practices and regulations - they just need clear and implementable guidelines.
The biggest change in the short term is the rollout of mandatory Farm Environment Plans (FEPs) by 2025.
That means that effectively every working New Zealand farm will need to have one. There are over 30,000 farms in total.
Farm Environment Plans (FEPs)
A Farm Environment Plan (FEP) helps farmers recognise and manage on-farm environmental risks.
Different farms will have different risks, depending on the local soil, type of farm, and the outcomes the farmer is trying to achieve..
What these plans require will change by the time we get to 2025. Right now, the focus is on freshwater, but by 2025, they will likely include carbon, biosecurity, animal welfare, biodiversity, and other elements.
This is a legislative requirement, but there is a growing demand coming from consumers and overseas markets; they are asking to see evidence of environmental responsibility. This is driving their purchasing decisions.
There is a real possibility that anytime now, these markets could say something like “if there is a carbon footprint on this product, we won’t buy it.” Taking steps now to mitigate that risk is crucial for them.
Situation beyond 2025
The long-term goal for the industry seems to be an integrated farm plan, which is a digital record of all environmental, social, governance and financial elements of the farm.
Having all information in one place provides a complete picture of the farm. It enables farmers to make informed decisions taking the entire operation into account.
Ideally, we will have a common system that can store and process the regional and national data. Being able to benchmark against peers and see collective impact is where we will really start to gain value.
That said, there is still plenty to be worked out.
Even if an integrated farm plan is the holy grail, we will not have single, “unicorn” auditors who are well-versed in all aspects - e.g no single person can be an expert in food safety, animal welfare, social practice, carbon footprinting, water quality, and policy.
The key will be to find a balance between robust assurance and minimum disruption (and cost) to the farmer.
If extra on-farm cost results in positive environmental outcomes, as well as value in terms of market access, product premiums, on-farm efficiency, and/or streamlining compliance, then we can call the system a success.
How to get started with a Farm Environment Plan
The Government has not defined all of the elements of FEPs yet. There are, however, a few things that farmers can do to prepare:
- Ensure you have a good map of your farm, and know where your boundaries, infrastructure and waterways are.
- Get in touch with your relevant industry group such as Beef & Lamb NZ, DairyNZ, HortNZ or the Foundation for Arable Research.
- Keep an eye on news releases from your Regional Council and Federated Farmers
What Does the Climate Change Commission’s Draft Advice mean for Farmers?
Ultimately what the Draft Advice says is what we already know: we need to get on with it. The recommendations provide certainty that the Government knows what needs to happen and that they will have to put money behind it to build capacity.
It acknowledges that some farming practices will need to change to minimise environmental impact, and that the government should support research and development for new technologies as well as connectivity for farmers by accelerating the rural broadband rollout.
The report makes a strong argument for how practice changes (including reduction of stock numbers) can improve emissions without reducing productivity or profitability, while at the same time improving pasture and water quality.
A final key point is that biogenic methane and nitrous oxide (mainly from animals) do not have to get to zero for us to reach net zero emissions in 2050. A combination of practice changes, technological solutions and on-farm sequestration can get us to where we need to be.
...and for manufacturers?
Large industrial heat users will need to find efficiency gains in the short term.In the longer term they will need to replace all coal and gas boilers with renewable options.
Capital expenditures will be large, but the Commission has indicated flexibility and support in this area.
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Keeping a keen eye on the horizon and thinking of what we can do to push the limits of what is currently possible; developing innovative solutions to what we anticipate as future challenges: this is how we will make a real difference to sustainable food production in New Zealand.
We need solutions that link supply chain, from on-farm, to transport, to manufacturing, and ending up with a product in a consumer’s hand. This is what is needed for robust sustainability.
Farmers and producers need to streamline their processes. This is crucial as regulatory and customer requirements become more complex.
Finally, there need to be ways to turn data to useful information for farmers and producers. For example, to be able to easily share trends and benchmarks across different industries, regions, and the country as a whole.