Sustainability: farming must become part of the solution

Farmers and farming have too long been viewed as part of the problem when it comes to sustainability and must be brought into the conversation if true progress is to be made, says Leadership Network member and leather exporter Nick Aubrey. The Foundation recently sponsored Nick to attend the E Tipu agribusiness summit in Christchurch to hear from some of the leading lights in the industry. The Foundation supported CEO and co-founder of Singapore-based Shiok Meats, Dr Sandhya Sriram, to speak at the summit about their cell-based meat and seafood company.
Network members Nick Aubrey, Cleo Gilmour and Jack Keeys

Network members Nick Aubrey, Cleo Gilmour and Jack Keeys at E Tipu

In an environment where farmers are so often the target for criticism (coming from a farm myself) it was heartening to hear a shift in the dialogue to one that was framed in the context that farming should be seen as a solution to climate change, not the problem.

This sentiment was captured nicely by Lindy Nelson, founder, Agri-Women’s Development Trust, in her summary that “Our ability to succeed relies on our ability to cooperate.”

With this inclusive and constructive mindset there are opportunities aplenty, not just within our agri-sector, but by harnessing the power of thought-leading minds from complementary industries. This set the platform for the two-day event.

The theme of the summit could be characterised as ‘making more from less’ by optimising inputs, minimising impacts, and designing a product’s end-of-life. Alexey Rostapshov, head of John Deere Labs put it another way - shifting from Bigger, Faster, Stronger, to Automated, Easy to Use and Precise.

Several presenters spoke of the move beyond sustainability to regeneration. Regenerative agricultural is a term we are hearing a lot in the food and fibre industry.

In my view the logic is sound, in that sustaining something that is harmful will only cause further damage. We must be moving towards positive action.

What remains to be seen is how the market will define regeneration, and the market’s willingness to consider the correlation between a grower’s economic sustainability and their environmental sustainability.

This comment should not be seen as a challenge to the brands, rather it should be viewed as a challenge to each of us as we make our individual consumption decisions. As a farmer once told me, “you cannot be green if you’re in the red.”

E Tipu speakers included some of the leading lights in New Zealand's food and fibre industry

When considering the vastness of the challenges Earth faces, it was grounding to hear Paul Polman’s perspective as the former CEO of Unilever: “SME’s are at an advantage to make change. When Unilever wanted sustainable vanilla, we had to change Madagascar.”

In New Zealand we may see our ability to influence the global situation as relatively small, but we can be nimble and in doing so to catalyse bigger actors to make change.

It is important to understand New Zealand’s place in the global environment. In New Zealand it is easy to think of sustainability above the ground without giving due consideration to sustainability below the waves. As Amy Novogratz (founder, Aqua-Spark) mentioned, most people are “talking about the planet being green, but most of the planet is blue”.

There is certainly a lot we can learn from aquaculture and apply to agriculture.

The Foundation's Alistair Crozier (middle) with Pablo Gregorini (left), Professor of Livestock Production at Lincoln University

The Foundation's Alistair Crozier (middle) with Pablo Gregorini (left), Professor of Livestock Production at Lincoln University

To summarise, I lean on terminology from my own farming heritage, and imagine for a moment that Earth was my own farm.

There is an acceptance of the tenant that the Earth’s population is growing, therefore we must increase Earth’s carrying capacity. It is so easy to tend towards a commodity mindset of bigger being better.

Perhaps it is time to ask the more contentious question – that is, what is Earth’s optimal carrying capacity, rather than, how do we extend Earth’s breaking point?

I left the summit inspired by the innovative thinkers in our agri-sector, but at the same time wondering if we are trying to hit the bullseye on the wrong target.

Nick is the Founder of leather company the New Zealand Luxury Group, a company exporting New Zealand leather to high-end manufacturers around the world.