Farming in the Age of Disrupted Food

Alternative proteins, plant-based diets, climate change, evolving animal ethics. Welcome to the disrupted food system.

As Kiwi food producers, now is the time to ask hard questions about how we got here and where we go next.

Let’s start with a story from an old farmer. Matt Rothe heads a sustainable food program at Stanford University, and his grandfather bought one of the first tractors.

The old man recalls the promise of this incredible new machine – it would make farming ‘better’. Like many of his neighbours, he took out a loan and entered the modern age of agriculture. Productivity skyrocketed. It soon made sense to take another loan. He bought more land and started optimising for an efficient, single-crop model – supported by more breakthrough technology like fertiliser. Productivity went through the roof, for him and every other farmer in the system. The abundance of food was great for supermarkets and shoppers, but soon began a decades long decline in commodity prices. Despite hard work and massive yields, Matt’s grandfather found himself in a debt trap.

This story is about productivism in agriculture, a model where farmers, processors and retailers focus on producing as much food as possible, as cheaply as possible.

Also referred to as the agricultural technology treadmill, productivism runs deep in the New Zealand farming psyche. Enough that it’s often just accepted as ‘the way’. The first thing a farmer will tell you is where they live. The second thing is their stock count or yield.  We define ourselves by our output.

For a long time, chasing production worked just fine – there was always more bush to tame and more customers to sell to. When we finally had no more room to grow outwards, we formed science, business and government alliances to drive productivity inside the model. More-from-more became more-from-less.

It’s only now, rapidly confronted by a strained and more complex food system, that we recognise its limitations. Productivism is not a resilient model in a world of climate change, a fracturing social license and alternative foods intent on disruption through brute force efficiency and price.

Challenges aside, we need to honestly answer Matt’s grandfather’s question – has productivism made farming ‘better’? While delivering record production, our rural heartlands have suffered painful declines in talent, social mobility and cohesion. The continued resilience of rural New Zealand is a testament to those holding our communities together. The breakdown is not the fault of farmers, but of a system hooked on cheap food and blind to the social and environmental costs of its production.

When we start to look for it, productivism is everywhere. Take for example the proposed methane-limiting vaccine for livestock. Despite good intentions, it’s an example of more-from-less innovation that puts the product before people and our values. Is this how our customers want us to farm? Are we treating our animals with dignity?

We’re at a pivotal fork in the road. As we take stock of our future, we need to do two things. Reconnect with the values of farming and frame the choices ahead.

To reconnect with our core values, ask a farmer why they do it. The answer isn’t stocking rates or profit margins. Those are important, but the ‘why’ of farming is family, community, growing healthy food and caring for the land.

Framing the other road is more difficult, but Kiwi professors Eric Pawson and Harvey Perkins’ ‘relationships economy’ concept is a good starting point. Contrasting the commodity based productivism of the dairy industry with the revival of Merino wool, they describe how value is not about ‘scaling up’, but ‘scaling across’ the people and place our products touch. For Merino and its signature Icebreaker range, value is co-produced through deep customer insight and advocacy, overseas relationships, transparency and provenance storytelling.

When we imagine food production as a web of relationships, we see new potential for economic value. Already, the seeds of value capture can be seen in Community Supported Agriculture or direct-to-consumer food and fibre brands. Carbon forestry is proving that using land for collective environmental gains can generate returns. Community led catchment groups are improving local waterways. Regenerative farmers are proving that the holistic system can be profitable and a ‘better’ way to farm.

In the same way that the government’s living standards framework will help us see society as more than an economic engine, we need to start prioritizing the ‘soft’ parts of our food system. These are long-term value investments like producer-customer connection, urban-rural community links, environmental progress, on-farm biodiversity, animal ethics and international leadership.

As we eye up this new road, I’m optimistic. The world is urbanising, digitising and modernising at a blistering pace. Every day we give a little more of ourselves to the algorithms, platforms and devices in the name of convenience. This shift only makes the core values of farming more precious; connection to the land, being humbled by the elements, tradition, caring for animals and wildlife, environmental regeneration, nourishing people.

We live in the age of Vegan Burger King and doctors prescribing nature to ease the anxieties of modern life. In this world, we’ll find new value in farming when we focus on people, not production.

As we brace ourselves for the challenges ahead – adapting to climate change, safeguarding our biodiversity, sustainably feeding Kiwis – farmers will be our heroes. Their actions flow through our food system and shape our health and environment. While the big decisions might be made in city boardrooms, it will be farmers who get in the mud and get the job done.

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Source: Dirt Road Comms

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