Fix our farming to restore our environment. An opinion piece by Derek Broadmore

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.

 

ECO Submission Summary: Biosecurity 2025.

The Ministry for Primary Industries released a discussion document on directions for biosecurity in New Zealand and called for public comment.  You can read the discussion document here and ECO’s full submission on our website.

ECO reviewed and provided suggestions for the the Ministry for Primary Industries’ direction statement for biosecurity. The Ministry defined biosecurity as the exclusion, eradication, or effective management of risks posed by pests and diseases to the economy, environment, and human health. The document proposed 5 strategic directions for biosecurity in New Zealand, which are for all New Zealanders to participate in biosecurity, to invest in science and research to revolutionize biosecurity, to have free-flowing information highways, to work towards effective leadership and government, and to build a capable and sustainable workforce and infrastructure.

ECO agreed with the Ministry’s approach of widening the scope of biosecurity to include all New Zealanders. However, ECO noticed that there was no discussion in the proposition regarding who will pay for all of these biosecurity improvements and is wary of a “victim pays” approach. As a solution, ECO proposed a biosecurity import levy. ECO also noted that the document focused on plants and animals while overlooking fungi and micro-organisms which are also vital to New Zealand’s natural environment.

ECO suggested that the Ministry draws on literature and evidence about what inhibits pro-environmental behaviour in order to strategise actions that could change and harness these attitudes. On a related note, ECO was wary of the Ministry’s focus on investing in the sciences and suggested also engaging the social sciences. ECO also suggested caution regarding free-flowing information highways because many rural New Zealanders are protective of their privacy and this strategy could be interpreted as a loss of autonomy or privacy. In general, ECO agreed on all of the strategies proposed by the Ministry with some minor suggestions for improvement.

ECO Submission Summary: the Conservation and Environment Science Roadmap

The Department of Conservation and Ministry for the Environment are working together to identify the areas of scientific knowledge which will be required by government over the next 20 years for decision-making for conservation and environmental policy and management.  This is known as the “roadmap”.

Submissions from interested groups and individuals were invited and ECO made a submission in response to the government discussion paper, which is on the DOC website.

We have summarised our submission below.  The full text of the ECO submission is available on the ECO website here.

Submission Summary:

ECO provided suggestions for improvements to the Conservation and Environment Science Roadmap. The roadmap is a document outlining 12 topics related to environmental science and the ways in which the government, private sector, non-governmental organizations, and individuals can make positive decisions regarding the environment. ECO believes that regarding climate change, the listed goals are too weak and that the roadmap places too much emphasis on raising awareness. The roadmap should encourage a real programme of actions to reduce greenhouse gas emission, such as a goal to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050 rather than the proposed 30% reduction.

While ECO understands the appeal of new environmental technology, it opposes carbon capture and storage because the environmental impacts are not fully known or understood and because it could be used as an excuse to not de-carbonize the economy. ECO also criticized the overarching goal of protecting “highest priority” populations as not being ambitious enough; by referring to some species as “highest priority” it implies giving up on others and this is unacceptable to ECO. ECO also notes that it supports the inclusion of Mātauranga Māori but cautions against the vigorous assertion of Maori property rights at the expense of the health of the environment itself.

Other topics covered in the roadmap included the ecosystems and processes of freshwater, land, coastal and marine, and urban environments as well as biosecurity, and the social and economic dimensions of conservation. In general, ECO felt that the roadmap was too sensitive and had too much “spin” and could benefit from being more blunt or direct. ECO also recommended the addition of topics such as the atmosphere, environmental legal and policy research, and the study of energy alternatives.

Summary written by ECO volunteer Adena Maier

How Drones are Helping Conservation Efforts

Author Emma Mills is a wildlife enthusiast and writer who came across a site where drone footage is made publicly available, including that of nature and wildlife.  Emma considers the many uses of this drone footage for conservation and safer tourism – and what we in New Zealand can learn from it.

Could New Zealand learn something from big game conservation in Africa? Up and down the continent, governments and NGOs are working on integrating drone technology into their conservation efforts. For two centuries or more, magnificent animals such as lions, rhinos, and elephants have been hunted to near extinction levels for their pelts, tusks, and horns. Drones are now becoming part of the effort to save those still existing in the wild.

A New Tool Against Poachers

Drones combine relatively discrete movements with the ability to access difficult locations and create film footage. The main use of drones in Africa is to help protect so-called big game from poachers who want to sell body parts on the black market either as trophies or for pseudo-medical purposes. Some parts of the middle east also want big cat kittens as pets, which usually means the killing of their parents. Drones provide a flexible and easily moved means of monitoring wildlife populations and scouting for potential poachers. This allows conservationists to better deploy their police and gamekeepers to combat them.

Protecting Gamekeepers from the Animals

Big game in Africa does not know the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Looking after, protecting, and monitoring large animals such as these is a dangerous business. Animals can be surprised, defensive, or just plain hungry. By using drones, governments have been able to monitor their movements, health, breeding, feeding, and other aspects of their lives without disrupting them, startling them or endangering gamekeepers.

Drones Promote Safe Tourism

Most people recognize drones for their ability to produce stunning aerial and sweeping video footage. This footage is not just useful for conservationists, but also in promoting ecological and ethical tourism on the continent. Wildlife videos can inspire new generations of people to help Africa’s wildlife, as seen on social video sharing sites such as YouTube and AirVuz.

What New Zealand Can Learn From This

We Kiwis may lack big cats, rhinos and elephants, but ecological conservationism is just as important to us as any other country; perhaps more so. Africa is using drones for a positive future to protect endangered species and monitor animals in remote, hard to access areas. It is also reducing the risks presented to conservationists and promoting correct tourism. New Zealand can learn from this to correctly utilize drones for less accessible areas, to maintain the integrity of easily disturbed animals and birds. However, if utilized, an impact study should be conducted to ensure the drones themselves will not disturb the animals, which some studies in America have shown.

What’s next for food prices?

In 2011, Time magazine ran an article predicting continued food price spikes as a result of rising population, increasing fuel costs and the increasing scarcity of water.

ECO asked a researcher, Aubanie Raynal, to analyse the article five years on to see what has happened since – are food prices still on the way up?  And what will happen in the next five years?

Here are her findings:

………………….

In his 2011 article, Michael Schuman showed how limited food production coupled with
growing population drove to food price spikes.

In 2011, the economic crisis which began three years earlier in 2008, was at its highest point with prices multiplied by two since 2005.

Schumann’s list of pressures on food prices includes:

  • More and more people to feed
  • Changes in our diet – more meat consumption
  • Higher demand on biofuel
  • Higher pressure on agriculture
  • Acts of nature
  • Irrigation, lowering of the water table

Nevertheless after 2011 we observed a drop of the food price index  in 2015 with even bigger falls in 2016.

Were Schuman’s predictions wrong? What changes / factors have driven down the prices?

According to the FAO, the decrease is mainly due to large stock and lower demand. For
example, the production of wheat, sugar and palm oil is higher than expected,
and with the slow trade activity – meaning more product for less demand – the prices are
being driven down.

For Gail Tverberg, the principal cause is what she calls the “high-priced fuel syndrome”.
Indeed, every kilogram of food is produced thanks to fuel (see Figure 3 on the Finite World link). The stabilization of the barrel price predict by analysts, due to high productivity in the USA (2), Russia and Saudi Arabia and their interest to maintain it below $100 should maintain food price stability for a few years.

Furthermore, the fuel price impacts on factors other than the direct cost of
food production. For example, the demand in biofuel is currently decreasing, which implies less land area devoted for biofuel, thus more areas for food.

If we look closer at the relation between food and fuel price we realise that their evolution
might be symmetric but not proportional. Between 2011 and 2015, when the fuel price dropped  50% the food price only dropped off 30% (3).

The difference shows that other factors are playing an important role. Eastern Asian
countries, for example, are currently switching from a traditional diet to a more Western
one. A populous country as China now consumes more meat than the USA.
See: http://www.earth-policy.org/plan_b_updates/2012/update102

The food price evolution is a complex model where economic, human and environmental
parameters are linked to each other. We have to keep in mind that the 2010/2011 food
price spike was a warning and will strike again if we do not change the way we consume,
produce and regulate the food market.

In order to avoid the same scenario recurring, the solutions suggested by Michael Schuman (to increase the investment in R&D in agriculture, to control the food market and to improve food distribution) are more than ever necessary.

‘Enjoy your dinner tonight. While you can still afford it.’

 

References:
1 Editor of The Oil Drum , web article ‘High-Priced Fuel Syndrome’ Posted on September 26, 2012:
High-Priced Fuel Syndrome

2 Steve Austin, Managing editor of Oil-Price.net, web article ‘The top 6 reasons oil prices are heading lower’ Posted on May 7, 2015:

http://oil-price.net/en/articles/top-6-reasons-oil-price-are-headedlower.

3 Tim McMahon, , web article ‘Historical Oil Prices Chart’ Posted on April 30, 2015 :
http://inflationdata.com/Inflation/Inflation_Rate/Historical_Oil_Prices_Chart.asp
The difference shows that others factors are playing an important role. Eastern Asian
countries, for example, are currently switching from a traditional diet to a more western
one. Such a populous country as China now consumes more meat than the USA.

Biological indicators and pest control

Wade Doak of Riverlands Landcare in Ngunguru writes that it is biological indicators which are a true indicator of the success of pest control measures:

Since success implies that pest kill tallies will gradually reduce each year, surveys of these alone, which our neighbours in Riverlands Landcare Group have done for several years, are not a good basis to estimate pest control performance. Biological indicators are a sure sign of improvement. Where three decades ago I got 31 possums in one night, Jan and I have only caught four in the past eight months, and we operate on some neighbouring land too. We are across the highway from the DoC Crawford Reserve, at Ngunguru, a reservoir of pest invaders we also have to control.

Certain occurrences have set me thinking about the unexpected benefits that emerge as old, relatively recently severed ecological connections start to get mended. (Logging of native forest in past 150 years and ensuing livestock farming). Emergent biological indicators that we may notice day by day make an interesting list.

That dense grove of large karaka seedlings Jan and I found recently along the extended Kanuka/ Bittern track, (newly territory) near a never-before-sighted blooming, pohutukawa, set us thinking. It indicates a new influence from the time our neighbours began intensified pest control, with the much-reduced possum grazing and seed eating by rats and mice. (For many years, before neighbours arrived, pest control here was mainly done by the Doaks.)

Are the whirlwinds of native bees on the kanuka blooms, a species going extinct elsewhere, surviving well here because of a pest that threatens it? Or what influence assists them, absent elsewhere?

Our widespread army of giant kauri snails have radiated from a single, hermaphroditic releasee right over to the eastern Waiotoi River boundary; south out to Reggie’s; along the newly made Buffalo Track to the west and are seen as road kill on Ngunguru Highway to the north.

Further evidence is growing density of miromiro; of two quail species; and pheasants; the dramatic increase in tui and kereru; the great numbers of fantail and grey warblers, with so many migratory cuckoo of two species. Kiwi calls are frequent now, (male and female) and there are sightings and droppings around our homes. Increasing sightings of endangered pateke /brown teal, there are now 54 on Ngunguru River, and documentation of spotless crake, banded rail, fernbirds, and Australian bittern sightings, all indicate major improvements in our marshes. Weta galore of two species, rhinoceros beetles on our house walls (both are pollinators) and geckoes in our outbuildings, peripatus in our forests, so many orchid species, the list goes on….

Then there is the abundance of seedlings that now survive rats and can be dispersed by expanding numbers of birds: karaka, pigeonwood, taraire, nikau, kahikatea, rimu, miro, totara, Pseudopanax-two species, coprosmas, (several species: five common ones), mairehau, toropapa, Pittosporum umbellatum, mahoe (two species), mingimingi of two species), hangehange, nikau and veritable swards of possum-favoured kohekohe now crowd our paths. Then, the wind-blown seeds of kauri, tanekaha, towai,  kumarahou, rangiora, hebe, tree daisy (O. furfuracea) and kanuka, are spreading vigorously, uneaten by rodents. A whole grove of fragrant mairehau bushes has been found.

Lack of plant damage is further evidence: non-nibbled foliage and uneaten fruit; even fallen black passionfruit now remain untouched; we no longer see empty macadamia nut shells, tooth drilled by rats. Our auto camera once took pictures of a possum grazing tree bark repeatedly: a blackwood. Possums once stripped a single gum tree overnight and made it impossible to raise pohutukawa: now some 200 healthy plantings head skywards, many donated by Project Crimson.

No hedgehogs have been seen for ages: a nuisance in stoat traps, predators of ground bird nests. Rabbits are expanding without predation by stoats. They become mustelid bait or promote banana growth. But we still have native hawks, kingfishers and ruru as predators.

The quality of human life in our homes, gardens and orchards has increased as our forests flourish. It’s like getting rid of fleas and body lice for home owners. It is by far the best way to enhance your land; and your neighbourhood. Our Landcare project now protects 172 hectares.

Find more of Wade’s writing

ECO Member GE-Free New Zealand asks for your help

Claire Bleakley of GE Free New Zealand has been at the annual conference for the GM Free Alliance, a group of NGOs representing Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. She has sent us this report:

GE free activists in New Caledonia have been very successful in stopping the importation of GM seeds into New Caledonia and they are looking to find places where they can access knowledge and seed for seed saving.

As the Pacific is being hit by climate disasters regularly it has been found that the indigenous small farmers are being hit hard.  Aid donors are giving them hybrid, often GMO seeds to plant for the next season.  When they are given these seeds they expect that these will be able to be saved and replanted, not realising that they are for one season only.   Local farmers have no concept of hybrid one- season seed growth and do not have the money to buy the seeds annually.    

Unfortunately there is no regulation in these countries relating to the importation of GM seeds and they often follow the US and FSANZ approval recommendation for GM foods. The conference decided that to combat this we would like to set up a support package that provides heirloom, open pollinate seeds to the islands in such disasters, as well as information on the differences between the various seeds. The islanders are mostly subsistence farmers who grow with the seasons and without chemicals.

If you or your organisation can help with know-how for seed saving and are willing to be be part of a New Zealand aid and response package for New Caledonia please contact Claire Bleakley on claire@gefree.org.nz  to discuss. Thank you!