The future of New Zealand farming
Find lay Buchanan talks to the people at the fore front of a fourth agricultural revolution
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 amp up. 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? Find lay Buchanan talks to some of the pioneers 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, taking up 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 eye 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
I don’t think we need to detach ourselves from the meat industry. Our meat and milk industry has been amazing for New Zealand, we have been built on it. What you are talking about is change, humans have an aversion to change, even though change is the only constant. Everything evolves, everything changes. This is an evolution of protein. I stand on the shoulders of all of those people who built animal agriculture, we would never deny that. But i t’s about lifting the next generation, doing something new that is better for all.
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.”
The emergence of plant-based proteins, or meat-free meat, has been touted as a panacea in the quest for cleaner food systems. Here in New Zealand, Sunfed Meats have spearheaded the movement, having developed IP and infrastructure to locally manufacture meat-like products out of its premium yellow pea protein. It has proved popular, having consistently sold out its chicken-free-chicken products, and has big plans to unleash new offerings and increase local production.
Sunfed Meats came to be after what founder Shama Lee describes as ‘a bit of an existential crisis’.
“I had everything you are told to achieve in life, I did my degree, got a good software programming job, and climbed the ladder. I have a good marriage and met the love of my life. But I was feeling hollow and unfulfilled to the point where I quit my job. During that process I went into a selfimposed exile. I took a whole year out, no noise, no social media, nothing. So, through that process I had to figure out what I wanted to do with the limited time I have on this planet. And that is how Sunfed was born.”
Lee speaks in a matter of systems – possibly a result of her background in software engineering – where she dispatches our food system as an ‘energy problem’.
“Food is just another source of energy we consume on this planet. Just like there are other sustainable and non-sustainable energy such as coal, oil and solar, so too is food.” Lee tells me, before stating that meat has become one of the most unsustainable forms of food energy on this planet.
“It is unsustainable because the more it grows, the worse it gets. That is the definition of unsustainability.”
Lee specifically points out the series of risks attached to animal agriculture: animal disease outbreaks, pollution and deforestation, human health, as well as animal suffering – problems she believes alternative plant protein production could help solve.
“People always talk about inefficiency, but I always say look at the risk,” she says. “I feel that for too long capitalist systems are built on exploitation, where the more it grows the more it exploits. But I don’t believe that. At Sunfed, we wanted to build something that is highly scalable, where the more it grows, the more it invigorates. It doesn’t take and deplete – it adds value.”
To do so, Sunfed has built from the bottom up. It has forged its own hardware and proprietary techniques, in which the production method consumes at least five times less land and water than animal farming. Furthermore, its Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken boasts higher levels of protein, zinc and iron than animal farmed chicken.
Lee says, “We are the only ones who went out with a naked minimalist product that doesn’t hide behind flavours. The reason we were able to stand behind that is because we are product-led and hence engineering-led and have invested considerable R&D, time and capital into getting the product right. The Sunfed production method is very clean, we had to build our own, we didn’t want to use standard things off the shelf that would compromise the integrity of the product. Nothing existed that could do what we wanted so we built our own.”
Sunfed is currently in the process of building a much larger production plant in Auckland, which Lee says, will come online next year and have significant volume, giving Sunfed economies of scale.
“In the three plus years of engineering, we haven’t worked on chicken, we have worked on how to take plant proteins and make meat out of them. To then make chicken or beef or pork, it’s not much of a stretch, once you have the product texture right, then you have a good foundation to work from.”
Its strategy is product and engineering focused and aims to have the cleanest, most minimalist ingredient deck in the market. It also tastes considerably different from its existing competitors. For example, the texture of tofu, the mushy bean curd, is significantly different from meat, while Sunfed retains the tough and versatile qualities of chicken. Because of this, as well as the multitude of nutritional benefits, Sunfed has gained strong support. It is sold as a premium product, and it seems to be working.
Food has traditionally brought cultures and people together, and food producers and consumers have traditionally been very closely aligned. Currently, food producers are often maligned by consumers – food i s driving us apart. We need to sit around the table and share our experiences and values openly, within a climate where we all agree to change. That will ensure New Zealand will drive the next revolution i n food production.
“We don’t have a marketing budget, we were just a start up when we launched the product, and it kept selling out everywhere. Our launch video went viral and received 12 million views, it was insane. You can’t make this stuff up. The product is really important – too often people put out a subpar product and big companies put all this money behind it and market it – but without first getting the product right, it’s not sustainable.”
While Sunfed claims to be a global leader in its ability to replicate whole pieces of fleshy meat, international companies are also rising to the challenge. Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley has produced a roster of alternatives, including Impossible Foods, which banked a healthy US$389 million of investment and is served across 1000 restaurants in the states, while welcoming the endorsement of top chefs and consumers along the way.
However, it’s evident that meat plays a larger role than its textural, nutritional, or economic benefits. It has become, ostensibly, a part of our identity. Think of the widely shared Sunday roast, the cherished summer barbeque, or the traditional hāngi – meat has long been at the heart of our cultural customs. Therefore, it was no surprise when brainy scientists developed meat-free-meat, many felt a sense of umbrage.
Tellingly, when Air New Zealand deployed the plant-based Impossible Burger to be served on two of its international flights, a series of disgruntled responses followed. These cries extended into government, where National MP Nathan Guy took to Twitter stating, “It was disappointing to see Air NZ promoting a GE substitute meat burger” and later declared “the national carrier should be pushing our premium products and helping sell New Zealand to our world”. These thoughts were bolstered by deputy prime minister Winston Peters, who stated he is “utterly opposed to fake beef”.
The pushback signified an obstacle for the newly minted industry of whether alternatives to meat could be welcomed through the farm gates of New Zealand culture. Asked if we as a nation need to fully detach ourselves from meat, Lee argues we don’t need to, nor does she feel that she is against the meat industry.
Lee says, “I don’t think we need to detach ourselves from the meat industry. Our meat and milk industry has been amazing for New Zealand, we have been built on it. What you are talking about is change, humans have an aversion to change, even though change is the only constant. Everything evolves, everything changes. This is an evolution of protein. I stand on the shoulders of all of those people who built animal agriculture, we would never deny that. But it’s about lifting the next generation, doing something new that is better for all.”
Certainly, the dawn of alternative meats provides a new competitor for our meat industry, but more importantly, it provides a choice for consumers about what agricultural system they buy into. To help provide inclusivity, Lee is careful not to label her product as vegan or vegetarian but aims to be a binding force between meat and non-meat eaters.
Lee says, “We are not about preaching, we are not a vegan company, we are only trying empower the consumer with a real choice and empower the farmer with a real choice.”
From a farming standpoint, Lee says because of such a heavy history of farming animals, there has been little infrastructure to support other forms of farming in New Zealand. Certainly, in the long run, harvesting pea proteins provides a huge opportunity for both our farmers and our economy, but currently the focus for Sunfed is to set up resource and infrastructure to boost supply and demand.
“For New Zealand, you can’t yet go straight to the farmers right now, you have to build the whole infrastructure first. So, you first have to build the consumption end before you build the supply end, which is the farming side. We have to scale the consumption end and get the volumes we need. Once we have the necessary volumes, I plan to go back into the supply chain and invest in key infrastructure points to allow us to go all the way back to the farmer. That is the Sunfed vision.”
Not ready to be put out to pasture
Pāmu stands as one of the old hands in the industry alongside the bevy of young farming start-ups looking to cement themselves into the future of farming. Formerly known as Landcorp, the business started 130 years ago and has since helped New Zealand become a $2-billion-dollar agriculture sector, while boasting a position as New Zealand’s largest farming enterprise. It has produced the majority of New Zealand farms – more than 25,000 – and has transformed our land from forestry into pastoral farming. But while it may seem like an incumbent organisation, it also is eager to adapt for the future. Over the last five years, it has helped create a new expectation for farmers to practice environmental stewardship and to attach appropriate value to its products.
CEO Steve Carden provides an honest reflection of his enterprise, stating Pāmu was built for years on producing as much meat, wool, and milk as possible, to exploit land for maximum profit. But while it provided productive farms, after years of dairy intensification, it came to realise its model was broken.
“We built a model on intensive farming, which was relying on really heavily driving people who worked in those businesses, the animals that we farm, and the overall environment which we were farming,” he says.
Carden says Pāmu is currently in the midst of a shift from a large-scale, intensive corporate animal farming model, to a diversified land use model where it produces a range of specialty animal products and specialty plant-based products.
Pāmu has already sought to fulfill the wants of a modern consumer, particularly alternative dairy forms, having set up a series of programmes to provide a portfolio of plant based and non-cow dairy products such as sheep milk, deer milk, and plant milks alongside others. This ties into its bid to attach more value to its products, with the view that its animal products need to be niche and premium, as opposed to being plainly commoditised.
“We’ve worked really hard to make our products different, in terms of how they are produced, so we are really interested in organics which has a system of farming with a lower footprint as well as a brand that is attached to it globally that people pay a premium for.
“We are interested in alternative and new animal products like sheep milk and deer milk. We have built a company called Spring Sheep, New Zealand’s leading sheep milk business exporting products into Asia, having developed deer milk companies which is a high end animal protein story around a superfood which is really high in protein, high in fat, that we are getting into food service in Australasia as a food desert. And potentially has some cosmetic applications elsewhere.”
Carden says despite assumptions that farmers are stuck in their ways, there is a lot of good work happening across the sector to open up more transparency.
“In the old days there was a ‘my house, my castle’ approach to farms, but all that is changing, obviously every food company around the world is expected by the consumers to much more open about the conditions with which it is producing the food they are consuming. And that pressure is applied to farmers as well.”
He says that expectations from supermarkets – and large meat and dairy companies
– to accurately record farm operations has ramped up. Additional pressure is compounded by renewed changes and expectations at government level about how animals are treated, environmental concerns, along with issues of health and safety.
Luckily, the increased pressure is met with the development of new tools to aid farmers and with that, new modes of transparency. Carden points to an example, FarmIQ, a land and animal management system as one of the best examples in the market.
“It’s a really complicated integrated piece of software which we use to basically measure what happens to every animal on our farm, whether it is where they get moved, what they eat, how big and fast they are growing, what medicines have been applied to them, and where they end up going. And also a similar level of transparency around what we are actually doing on our land. So every paddock is managed, it has fertiliser applications, pesticide use alongside what we are doing with water and irrigation. So that’s a really good tool for making sure, in a single software database, a really accurate eye on virtually everything that is happening across our farms.”
“The data requirements and what we need to report on at every level is so substantial that if you try to do it manually without the help of technology you are in real trouble”.
But how have farmers responded to such a shift in consumers’ expectations? Carden says initially, they were very skeptical.
“They were concerned that what we were doing was both unrealistic and unnecessary. And we’ve got to push the industry to a place which was unpleasant for them, as it has been at times, unpleasant for us,” he says.
“What I think they feel now is an acceptance, that we foresaw what was inevitable for the industry, and that has become a reality. As the country’s largest farming company with 125 farms around the country across 1000 people, we have the scale to introduce the science and technology needed to make that transition. So, I think there is a begrudging acceptance we got it right with our strategy.
And everyone now is working