Derek Broadmore was an early director of the Environmental Defence Society, a lawyer in Wellington for 35 years and Chair of both BioGro and OANZ at different times. After leaving law he concentrated on his certified organic orchard and farm in the Wairarapa. He is currently living in Auckland and consulting within the organic sector.
According to investigative journalist and author Alfred Henry Lewis (in 1906) “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy”. Food, with shelter, is the most basic requirement for human survival. In New Zealand the impact of food production on our natural ecosystems is the biggest environmental issue that we face but we have tended to shy away from tackling it head on. We can’t afford to continue to do that.
I have been involved, in various ways, in the environmental movement for more than 40 years. I think we have tended to regard the “environment” as our rivers, mountains, forests, lakes and coastlines. We saved, or tried to, Manapouri, Pureora and other forests, rivers lakes and wetlands. We protested against dams and tried to stop developments on sensitive coastlines. Somehow we did not get that the tracts of land that connected all these bits of the environment, farmland, were being dramatically changed.
The post second world war green revolution, made possible by synthetic chemicals, changed the way we farmed. And not in a good way. For 70 years now, orchestrated by the global chemical and seed giants and as a matter of economic survival, our farmers have had to produce more and more just to stay afloat. Chemicals and irrigation have given them the tools to do that. The assault on our soils and the degradation of our rivers happened insidiously over time, but the consequences are now obvious.
New Zealand is unusual in the developed world in that 49% of our green house gas emissions are from agriculture. They are the biggest single contributor to our greenhouse gas profile topping the energy sector by nearly 10% (NZ Ministry for the Environment NZ greenhouse gas emissions profile). We are doing almost nothing to reduce them. We have even excluded agriculture from the only (weak) initiative we have taken to meet emissions reduction targets, the Emissions Trading Scheme.
Despite our emissions profile, the climate change protest movement in New Zealand has tended to mimic the overseas protests with a focus on energy and fossil fuels. Our catch cries are the universal “divest” and “keep it in the ground”. We don’t shout “keep it in the cow” about milk, or “diversify” about industrial farming monocultures. Of course, globally, it is important to shift from a fossil fuel based energy system but in New Zealand we have a bigger problem.
It is well known and understood that conventional farming practices degrade our soils. We cannot wholly replenish those soils with chemical fertilisers. Maria-Helena Semedo the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Deputy Director –General recently told a forum organised to mark World Soil Day that it takes 1,000 years to generate 3 centimetres of top soil and that if current rates of degradation continue, globally all of the World’s top soil could be gone within 6o years. She also said:
“Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960”.
Soil degradation through industrial style conventional agriculture is only one side of a double edged sword that is destroying our environment at a fundamental and possibly irreversible level. The other is irrigation. The demand for more and more production to stay economically viable has meant a huge and increasing demand for water. By way of example, and there are various estimates, but 1000 litres of water to make one litre of milk is an often quoted figure. Water is a finite resource. Farming in New Zealand already demands far more of it than the rest of our ecosystem can afford to give.
If the price we have to pay for our primary industries to remain economically viable is the fertility of our soils and the destruction of our rivers and aquifers then we need to change the drivers for viability. We need to find a production model that works economically at much more sustainable levels of input.
Regenerative organic agriculture does give us a model for a low input, sustainable method of food production. We can preserve the fertility of our soils and vastly reduce our demand for water and still, economically, produce sufficient food to sustain the growing global population. This article is not the place to detail the economic, environmental and health benefits (the business case) of organic food production but I am happy to do that, with the evidence, for anyone interested.
There can’t be any doubt that the greatest threat to our natural environment as we know it is climate change. If we are serious about making a meaningful contribution to the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions and, if we are serious about restoring our natural environment in New Zealand then we need to tackle the way we produce food.
ECO has done a huge amount over the years to advocate for our natural environment. I think primary production is an area that it has tended not to focus on although it has certainly been concerned about some of the consequences, particularly as they have affected water ways. It is past time to go directly to the source of the problem.
Given the importance of farming to our economy it is not surprising that environmental groups have tended to shy away from a direct attack on farming methods, focussing instead on trying to ameliorate their effects. However we will not restore our natural environment unless we effect fundamental change to our current farming methods.