Our Land and Water joined E Tipu: Boma NZ Agri Summit as a channel partner. The two-day event aimed to contribute to meaningful sector change by connecting growers, innovators, youth, changemakers, technologists, educators, business, and policymakers. Here are our top 10 takeaways from the event.
1. The time to raise our ambition is now
“New Zealand’s competitive advantage is our natural environment. But we can’t be a nose in front, we need to be a mile in front”— Geoff Ross, Lake Hawea Station
We know New Zealand is a world leader in farming. Our livestock are mainly pasture fed, our dairy farms have the lowest climate impact in the world, our animal welfare and food safety standards are high.
That’s not enough to buffer us through the scale of disruption ahead, warned the experts, and we can’t afford to be complacent.
“We need to be the country of Rutherford, not the country of ‘near enough is good enough’,” says Ross Pennington, co-chair of the Sustainable Finance Forum, reminding us that New Zealand started refrigerated shipping in 1870 – 45 years before the domestic fridge was commercialised.
On top of our long history of ambitious innovation and reputation for our natural environment, there are brand new tailwinds that can drive us further ahead.
“People generally respect New Zealand, our brand and our environment. The upside of the Covid pandemic is that our star has continued to rise,” says Geoff Ross, owner of Lake Hawea Station, who’s turning two decades of international marketing and entrepreneurial expertise to New Zealand’s primary sector.
This post-Covid period is a “once in a lifetime opportunity”, says Dave Maslen, markets and sustainability manager at NZ Merino. “New Zealand is riding a global reputational wave of being absolute leaders.”
That’s not only an opportunity for New Zealand, but also our duty and obligation, says Paul Polman, co-founder of IMAGINE and former CEO of Unilever. “You’ve won the lottery ticket of life by being born here.”
2. The finance sector is stepping up
“We need to reward and pay farmers for ecosystem services”— Paul Polman, co-founder of IMAGINE and former CEO of Unilever
Finance is crucial to transforming the way New Zealand takes our products to the world, to meeting water quality and carbon emission goals, and to building resilience to a changing climate.
“The cost of not acting is becoming significantly higher than cost of acting,” says Polman, but food producers are understandably risk-averse. “Farmers only have 50 or 60 shots at a crop in their lifetime, so taking a risk is a big bet.”
The money is there. Louisa Burwood-Taylor, chief editor at AgFunder, says 2020 was the biggest year ever for investment in food and ag-tech. Founder of New Zealand’s Calm the Farm funding platform, Mike Taitoko, describes a world “awash with capital”.
What’s needed are more ways to connect funding with farmers. When Calm the Farm launched to test the idea that hitting sustainability milestones on-farm could unlock private finance, “the whole market presented itself in weeks,” says Taitoko.
We also heard hopeful signals from those in the traditional finance sector who see it as a driver of transformation. (We see it that way, too.) BNZ’s Dana Muir describes their world-first sustainability-linked loan as an opportunity to give farmers confidence the bank agrees the work they’re doing to meet environmental goals is de-risking their business in the long term.
The recipient of the loan, Southern Pastures’ Prem Maan, says getting the Reserve Bank on board is an essential next step. He’d like to see sustainability-linked loans carry a lower risk rating, so banks can offer even bigger discounts, incentivising even more farmers to do the right things. Longer-term lending is another essential, he says, because the benefits of some actions, like native planting, come over longer terms than standard loans.
With better data, insurance could also get on board with sustainability-linked rates, suggested Taitoko.
Deep dive: The Sustainable Finance Forum released its Roadmap for Action towards allocating capital in a way that underpins sustainability in November 2020, and is now leading a Sustainable Agriculture Finance Initiative (SAFI) with ANZ, ASB, BNZ, Rabobank, Westpac and MPI.
3. We must return to long-term thinking
“The best way to look at the future is by looking at the past”— Melissa Clark-Reynolds, futurist
As CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman decoupled the company’s growth from its environmental footprint. “Companies run under long-term strategy with purpose at their core are significantly more profitable,” he says. “It attracts better people, makes them more innovative, and translates into results.”
“When I was growing up, I heard a lot about succession around the kitchen table,” says BNZ’s Dana Muir. “There’s such an opportunity for us to shift back to that mentality, not ‘What do I have to do to be compliant in the next six months’.
“Hopefully we’ll start to shift back to long-term thinking and long-term visions that our leading farmers haven’t lost.”
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4. Muster the courage to connect
“Courage is contagious”— Paul Polman, co-founder of IMAGINE and former CEO of Unilever
It may be a truism that collectively we are capable of much more than we are individually – but bringing the words to life takes courage.
Paul Polman’s IMAGINE initiative is bringing CEOs together to make change within their industries. To work together, they need the courage to expose aspects of their business, to be humble about what they don’t know, and to make commitments to their competitors.
“When we get CEOs together they become more courageous,” he says. The contagiousness of courage is why collective initiatives like regenerative farming are working, he says.
The opposite of belonging is humanity’s biggest fear – rejection, says Lindy Nelson, founder of the Agri-Women’s Development Trust. “I see fear showing up in our responses today to questions around how we farm, what we do with our waterways, burying our heads to climate change, rejecting the efforts of industry good bodies on our behalf. We are splitting the tribe rather than uniting the tribe.”
“Our ability to succeed has always relied on our ability to cooperate. When we have cultures of belonging, we have healthy systems. People are more productive, connected, engaged, they put in more discretionary effort, and find purpose and meaning through contributing together.”
“Imagine if all the people in our sector knew where they belonged and knew how they could contribute. If we do that, we will be unstoppable.”
Deep dive: New Models of Collective Responsibility is a major research programme developing new ways to strengthen connections between people, land and water.
5. Hunger in New Zealand is huge but solvable
“Feeding NZ is doable, we can achieve it”— Wayne Langford, Meat the Need
Primary sector exports are crucial fuel for New Zealand’s economy, but on land that feeds 40 million people too many Kiwis are going hungry.
This year 750,000 Kiwis don’t know where their next meal is coming from, says Lisa Booth of Kete Kai – a Covid-related increase of around 200,000 since 2019. Emergency food parcels help, but at a cost of shame, fear, vulnerability, and loss of sovereignty over their meal options.
It’s a situation we can fix, says Booth, whose Kete Kai aims to end hunger in Aotearoa by 2030. Kete Kai is working with Papakura Marae to launch a free food kit that enables food selection, to which recipients can add purchased items when they can afford them. Recipients can move towards discounted, then full-priced food kits, which will be available for anyone who wants to support the Kete Kai kaupapa.
We export 90% of our meat and 95% of our milk, says Wayne Langford, whose Meat the Need partnership with Silver Fern Farms connects meat from farmers to food banks. In its first year, 873 animals were donated, contributing to over 400,000 meals, with enough milk donated by Miraka for 80,000 breakfasts.
“Just 0.0002% of what we produce could put a pack of mince in every food parcel in New Zealand.”
6. Soil is the next frontier
“Better than yesterday, but not as good as tomorrow”— Dave Maslen, NZ Merino’s GM of markets and sustainability, on regen ag
The “life beneath our feet” gives us a huge opportunity to farm in alignment with nature, says Jono Frew, of Quorum Sense and Natural Performance Ltd. “We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the massively interconnected world [within soil].”
With many farmers facing cycles of drought and flood under a changing climate, there’s growing interest and curiosity about the role of soil and its water holding capacity. “People get excited by the opportunities in taking a soil health approach [to farming]”, says Nicole Masters of Integrity Soils. “Farmers want to create soils that function like a sponge,” and that don’t rely on inputs. She supports farmers to shift towards practices that increase diversity of species in the ground.
The label this approach has been given, ‘regenerative agriculture’, sparks a massive range of emotions in New Zealand, from joy to anger and worry, says Mike Taitoko. Farmers generally respond with curiosity, he says, and are stoked a pathway has been set out for research. At the consumer end, people “go nuts for cows eating flowers’” on social media. The pushback is coming from the people in the middle, he says, but they’re pushing against a global “freight train that’s left the station”.
On board that train is NZ Merino, which has built on its ZQ merino auditing programme, launched in 2007, with a new ZQRx index. This is a world-first framework of 15 KPIs for its suppliers to monitor their progress. 173 farms have signed up, with more on a waitlist, covering 1.7 million hectares of land, with ‘digital twins’ of farms being produced to communicate their practices to customers.
“The last thing the world needs right now is yet another audit,” says Dave Maslen, NZ Merino’s GM of markets and sustainability. “The trouble with auditing and minimum standards is that they drive mediocrity and leave stories untold.”
Deep dive: Read the regen ag white paper setting out 17 priority research topics identified by 200+ representatives of New Zealand’s agri-food system.
7. Health and climate: moving from cause to solution
“Please, get your [GHG] numbers, look at ways you can improve them. We can all go a lot further than we are at present.”— Geoff Ross, Lake Hawea Station
Climate change is an ever-increasing pressure for farmers, who face the heavy burden of both mitigating their own farm’s emissions and adapting to the changes in climate already locked in by the world’s past emissions.
There will be a competitive advantage for New Zealand producers in responding quickly, says Geoff Ross of Lake Hawea Station, and a real opportunity to be part of the solution.
“It’s really simple to know what your livestock are emitting from a programme like Overseer,” he says (his number: 2500 tonnes). It’s also relatively easy to calculate what you are sequestering, he says, with look-up tables for vegetation available online (his number: 6000 tonnes, making it a carbon-positive operation). The farm is now certified carbon neutral with the Toitū Farm Certification Programme.
Could New Zealand farming be carbon positive overall? Ross obviously thinks so, and Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever, sees a huge potential commercial advantage.
“Many organisations have taken net-zero goals, and want to turn their value chain carbon positive, and are willing to invest in farmers,” he says. “If the New Zealand ag industry shifts to carbon positive, that would give an incredible advantage with companies like Unilever to support them in their supply chain carbon impact.”
Health is another key driver identified by many experts – an even bigger driver than environment, says Miranda Burden of New Zealand plant-based protein company Food Nation.
Food consumption in the world is out of kilter, with 2.5 billion people overconsuming calories and 4 billion people under-consuming either food or nutrients, says Burden. People are more conscious of their meat consumption, with 24% of meat-eaters within New Zealand reducing their meat consumption in 2018–19.
In the US, 88% of the population is metabolically unhealthy, and at high risk of Covid complications, says Louisa Burwood-Taylor, chief editor of AgFunder. She sees a wave of investment coming in the ‘food as medicine’ field as the science of nutrition and gut microbiome improves, with particular investor interest in phytonutrients, and meal delivery personalised to health needs.
That’s an opportunity for New Zealand. Burden points out that quinoa and buckwheat are sources of complete protein and phytonutrients that people need in their diet. These are being grown in Canterbury already, and our research has identified these crops (and four others) as having particularly high potential commercial and environmental benefits for New Zealand.
Deep dive: Speciality Grains and Pulses Report (June 2019)
8. The role of the entrepreneur is critical
“Disruption is more and more common, and not only in the commodity space. It’s essential to disrupt ourselves”— Logan Williams, Keravos
The crashing commodity price of wool is sometimes held up as a cautionary tale – but wool is not an anomaly, it's a precedent for the disruption ahead, says serial inventor Logan Williams. His latest invention Keravos seeks to disrupt the plastic pellets used in factories worldwide with a wool-based alternative that can integrate into existing factories and supply chains.
Our ag sector could learn from New Zealand multimillion-dollar toy company Zuru, which has mastered the art of business disruption, says Williams. Zuru’s formula: Pick a market segment, identify a leading product, then create a similar priced product with a clear competitive advantage. (It’s a lot harder than it sounds.)
Keravos could enable New Zealand to shift of huge volumes of wool, says Williams. “Imagine what we could do with milk powder?”
“The role of the entrepreneur is utterly critical,” says Jason Wargent of BioLumic, which uses light signals to trigger biological changes in plants. “The pace of agricultural innovation isn’t moving fast enough to keep yields growing for our future needs. It takes 11 to 13 years to do the science to commercialise a new product, at a cost of up to $300 million.”
“We are entering another great revolution in agriculture,” says Wargent. “We need a million start-up companies working in this space at a speed that others cannot, to feed our hungry plant.
We should expect false starts and “troughs of disillusionment” says Louisa Burwood-Taylor, chief editor of AgFunder. Vertical farming captured investors' imaginations, but is still the equivalent of just 30ha of farming globally. Blockchain also elicited excitement, but with much of most supply chains yet to be digitised there’s been a drop-off in start-ups focussing on this area. And while alt protein start-ups remain at a “fever pitch” level of investor excitement “it is possible we might be heading for a bubble”, with the supply of pea protein a challenge for some start-ups and the risk of consumer backlash to the amount of processing required.
In a statement that might terrify those concerned by the way entrepreneurs have shaped the internet, “Global entrepreneurs are building their vision of a perfect food system,” says Amy Novogratz, of aquaculture investment fund Aqua-Spark. “It couldn’t happen at any other time, and it absolutely has to happen now.”
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9. Customers want to connect with producers
“New Zealand has a billion followers if you look at all influencers and all brands”— Geoff Ross, Lake Hawea Station
Consumers are feeling guilty about the products they are buying, and they are listening to the activists, says NZ Merino’s Dave Maslen. How do they mitigate the guilt they’re feeling? Though buying products that align to their personal values.
They also want to connect with producers. “People want to connect with the source of their food and fibre,” says Geoff Ross. “They want to look into your backyard quite literally. People want to hear our values and our personality.”
What happens on farms is often the only part of the value chain we control within New Zealand, says Maslen, but that’s the part consumers are interested in. New Zealand producers need to deeply understand their consumers, and re-wire their value chain.
“The old model has no connectivity between consumer and grower, and at every point along the supply chain there is a winner and a loser, someone who feels good and someone who doesn’t. It is the antithesis of innovation and collaboration, and it won’t serve our future.
“What will serve is a consumer-driven model. Identify who is driving influence for your customers, identify the brands they’re buying, then seek partnership with brands of purpose, giving them confidence that you’re adding authenticity.”
“If there is a single partner in the value chain who is losing, the value chain won’t work.”
Deep dive: Rewarding Sustainable Practices is a major research programme delivering validated new knowledge to agribusiness leaders transforming commodity supply chains to premium value chains
10. It’s people that change the world
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
“Passion is to do what you like, purpose is to do what is needed”— Paul Polman, co-founder of IMAGINE and former CEO of Unilever
“People want to be part of something that makes a difference,” says Paul Polman. “People with stronger purpose become better able to deal with uncertainty. This notion there is a trade-off between purpose and profit is increasingly wrong.”
“All change needs farmers to be at the centre,” says Polman. “If we don’t change the way we reward farmers or ask them to provide nature-based services we won’t meet the Sustainable Development Goals or fix climate change.” (Polman was instrumental in the creation of the SDGs, so his word on this has clout.)
“Farmers work the hardest and take the most risk – how is it that they’ve got least in their pockets?” asks Mike Taitoko of Calm the Farm. Farmers can be the heroes, he says. “Get out of their way and give them the finance and tools they need.”
“The farming community is more than capable,” says Dave Maslen. “If they feel empowered and ownership they can make change.”
“We celebrate the activists, those raising the bar and highlighting the problems the planet is facing. Even more so, we celebrate the actionists – those farmers out there every day, actively driving their farm to leave it better than where they found it. They’re taking the messages from activists and scientists and putting them into action every day.”
“We don’t need to wait for technology,” says Sir Ian Taylor, the brilliant technologist behind Animation Research Ltd. “The technology exists. The answers are there – now we have to find the way to connect. How do we bring this together? It is about attitude.”
“All the solutions are within our reach,” says Polman. “We are in moral dilemma more than an innovation dilemma.”
Deep dive: Watch Paul Polman's full interview (it's worth it for the Madagascar comparison alone).
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