Future Landscapes

Drought: Views, Issues and Reaching Outcomes

In this facilitated session, attendees were encouraged to imagine a future where Aotearoa New Zealand has fully adapted to a changing climate and then work backwards to understand how this goal could be reached as a nation.

The following article summarises one of several symposium sessions held on 31 May 2021, part of the Growing Kai Under Increasing Dry rolling symposium on drought and the changing climate, a collaboration between the Deep South, Resilience to Nature's Challenges, and Our Land and Water National Science Challenges.

In this facilitated session, attendees were invited to explore key issues and challenges, and generate ideas for resolving these. They were encouraged to use a future-focused lens to imagine a future where Aotearoa New Zealand has fully adapted to a changing climate, then work backwards to understand how this goal could be reached as a nation.

Delegates (online and in person) were asked to form small groups to discuss one of a selection of questions posed, before reporting back to the symposium.

The thoughts contained below should be considered as food for thought rather than the result of in-depth consideration and expertise relevant to each question. The ideas shared have been incorporated into the Growing Kai Under Increasing Dry report.

How can we bridge the gap between policy and on-farm implementation?

Delegates discussed some of the elements of good policy:

  • Issue appears driven by government
  • Early, quality consultation
  • Alignment between intended outcomes and behavior-change incentives

Trying to define the current ‘gap’ was a challenge for some, but it was ultimately concluded that this gap might be defined as the difference between what is intended and what is actually realised. When designing policy, there is generally an idea of intended outcomes, but this vision may not actually be achieved.

How can this gap be bridged?

It is possible to learn from other initiatives such as the current partnership between MPI and a range of primary sectors, which aims to address biosecurity challenges. This initiative used a codesign process where everyone was included; consensus was gained on shared principles and values, language, compromises, actions, timeframes, funding, evaluation measures, and what success would look like.

Bridging the policy-implementation gap could also be supported through changing legislation to enable better decision-making and involvement of people outside government.

As we start to see an increase in the frequency and severity of adverse events, what is needed to enhance the resilience of farming communities?

Context: Multiple problems appear to be converging together: Covid-19, PLUS labour issues, PLUS technology, PLUS climate change. This creates additional complexity.

As some attendees pointed out, there is an historical context relevant to this question, that is, farmers already have an inherent resilience and have worked through large-scale challenges in the past. The upheaval experienced by farmers in the 1980s was sudden and extensive. While many farmers adapted to their new political and economic reality, thousands of others left the industry over the space of three or four years. What might we learn from this episode in our history?

Potentially we might consider how we can support a respectful and dignified exit from the industry by those farmers who are unwilling or unable to make the necessary changes.

A related question is what level of assistance farmers might be offered to transition into different types of farming activity.… because change is hard. Some research indicates that when there is too much uncertainty, people prefer to remain with ‘the devil you know’ rather than seek out and engage in new practices. This is especially true if current practices appear to be working well most of the time.

This leads on to the observation that currently, there is a dearth of climate change research utilising social science. It would be useful to better understand human behaviours, motivations and triggers, as well as wider business implications of different scenarios. The younger generation is arguably more comfortable with the prospect of climate change adaptation as they have grown up with it.

One issue mentioned more than once during the Symposium is the language currently used to describe extreme events: we talk about one in 100-year floods, for example, which implies it won’t happen again anytime soon. However, the reference point for events is changing because these events seem to be happening more frequently. Formally changing terms and references to adjust expectations would be useful.

04 Panel
Illustration by Pepper Curry

There are existing pathways for getting science to those that can best use it. If these aren’t working as well as they could, what needs to change or improve?

Scientists are not necessarily the best equipped to take scientific knowledge to the farm gate, but need to be encouraged and enabled to do so.

Scientific endeavours in this country tend to be rewarded according to peer-reviewed journal publications, and scientists also spend a great deal of time writing funding proposals. Additionally, there is some concern that over-specialisation in research is resulting in researchers without a wider view of the primary sector.

Extending research findings to end-users is a secondary science aim, and one that requires additional funding over and above resourcing the research itself.

Recognising the commonplace disconnect between research and impact, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has recently stated that the way environmental research is currently funded makes appropriate and timely response to environmental challenges difficult, and that improved processes should be put in place.

Agriculture can be controversial, and scientists do not necessarily want to adopt a public-facing profile in that space. We need to create safe, moderated spaces for information sharing, and ideally, we need to reward communication in universities.

We no longer have funded extension services. We need to re-fund this, and bring in knowledge brokers to fill this role.

Who is responsible for translating research findings into farm practice and/or policy? The Farm Advisory Service (collaboration between MAF advisory, DSIR and farmers), which served the crucial role of public good extension and engagement, was discontinued at the establishment of the CRIs. Agricultural scientists in the US support extension by including it within research funding proposals; is this a practice that New Zealand could adopt?

Bringing extension services back would be expensive, but the cost of not doing anything is massive. Climate related risks will mean some farms are no longer profitable. Ultimately, we need more brokers to connect and translate the science.

There is no one size fits all; farmers listen to those they trust, and the details differ from farm to farm.

The simple answer to the question of how we best take science to the land is: create clear syntheses of the knowledge, and develop straightforward messages to overcome information overload. This would ideally take a farmer-centric approach.

Any number of communication pathways could and should be employed to disseminate this information, including: science publications; online fact sheets; community education and engagement; peer to peer learning; industry organisations and extension teams, such as Dairy NZ; primary industry advisors; resources provided by government agencies and regional councils, for example, MPI’s AgMatters, a well-funded platform for engagement with the agricultural sector; and the National Science Challenges.

And yet, the reality is a little more complex in terms of focusing on the most effective communication pathways and pitching messages in the most accessible ways, and of course, sufficient funding must be allocated. There is a role for industry bodies in getting this right, including establishing stronger relationships with science organisations.

How can we shift our focus from just-in-time response towards resilient communities and systems that adapt with the climate?

This question is relevant because just-in-time management has increased primary sector vulnerability: one small upset can destroy the whole chain. We need a longer-term view and action plans at individual, catchment and regional levels, in order to increase resilience. As one delegate noted, a just-in-time response is not useful because climate change is progressing rapidly and we need to provide a framework that people can use rather than simply responding to what is happening on a piecemeal basis.

“Farmers are very good at planning for the normal – there is a high level of variability so contingency planning is baked into farm practice – but the unknown in climate change increases uncertainty, and planning can suffer as a result.”

What would a resilient community look like?

It would have the space to think and plan for the long term, and be willing to self-manage and ask for help. Resilience encompasses many things, including social resilience, financial wellbeing, environmental infrastructure, as well as cultural and institutional factors. It is also important to remember that a community can be strong in one facet but poor in others, for example, have strong social resilience but poor economic resilience.

So what can support better planning?

Farmers are accessing information to support decision-making, but currently this tends to have a current/short-term focus that doesn’t support longer-term adaptation. Some considerations:

  • There is a risk of merely modifying the current rather than collectively entering into the paradigm shift needed, so we are not suggesting small tweaks as a solution.
  • One approach is to plan around the common and expected: adverse events, financial disruption and regulatory change. Seen through this lens, disruptors may in fact have some common solutions, and this awareness can feed into longer-term planning.
  • What might we learn from other countries?
  • Scenario modelling should be a key tool in planning, for example, agriculture pasture cover under different farm regimes, rainfall, and temperature.

“We have to build up resilience rather than hold out for greater certainty.”

Are we being imaginative enough when trying to solve the climate change challenge?

What are the environmental costs of attempting to continue with BAU (e.g. more water storage) rather than adapting land-use and farming systems to meet the changing climate?

Revisiting common practices will assist in moving away from BAU, and utilising technology (both new and old) should form part of this.

  • Minimise cultivation to reduce compaction. New technologies such as seed drills can enable this. Farmers tend to use what they have in the shed so unless modifications are possible, committing to new machinery is a big CAPEX decision (potential barrier to change).
  • Introduce new crops. Greater water efficiency is the aim here, and this could include more traditional deeper rooting species.
  • Use irrigation frugally and in a more targeted fashion, and use technology to achieve this.
  • Look to regenerative techniques. Diversity needs to be incentivised. Cover crops, multi-species/diversity, using legumes, minimal tillage – some reject this approach while others believe it will save the world; in the middle there are a lot of good farmers introducing biodiversity to good effect.
  • Increase water resilience. Legacy effect of historical allocations, need to enhance resilience. There is a role for water storage, but we also need to capture water more efficiently.
  • Incorporate active soil management. Natural processes are key. Higher temperatures and higher potential evapotranspiration wil have an impact. Some soils are very leaky, and susceptible to drought lengthening – build in resilience through better water-holding capacity, on-farm reticulation etc. Increase organic matter.
  • Focus on learning and extension. How can we encourage thinking beyond a narrow perspective? There is a role for education and for science and research in connecting to policy and practice. Build a new generation of growers who are upskilled in science and can communicate effectively. What does a farmer-centric perspective look like? How can famers be enabled to gain a clear line of sight and apply new knowledge to farm systems? It is a complicated mix.

“Learn to farm ugly.”

Discuss primary sector and iwi/hapū partnerships combining mātauranga Māori and biophysical science in developing drought adaption/resilience options

This is a complex topic, and the note-taker felt the group didn’t have sufficient time, diversity and knowledge to tackle in great depth.

Non-Māori partners should not rely on the idea of an homogenous Māori view when thinking about land management, but rather, be informed by the practices and expectations of each hapū.

“It comes down to people, good communication, and relationships.”

More information:


Jo-Anne Hazel

Jo is a 'knowledge herder' who specialises in bringing together knowledge and insights from a variety of sources.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top