When people in the United States and Europe think about New Zealand at all, a few notions usually pop into their heads: Our islands are far away, they’re pristine, and they’re the visually stunning backdrops to movies such as “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
We also have the best rugby team in the world, though the Americans don’t care and the Europeans won’t admit it.
Despite the vast distance between us and just about everybody else, New Zealand is not isolated. We’re tightly tied to the global economy. Farmers like me are especially connected because our government doesn’t subsidize agriculture.
That makes us different from farmers in many other countries, where subsidies are routine. Yet at a basic level, we’re a lot like farmers in Indiana, Italy, or just about anywhere. We recognize that the land is our lifeblood–and we want to use modern technology to produce food.
This became clear to me on a trip to the United States last year, when I participated in the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Roundtable in Des Moines, Iowa. A few of my fellow farmers introduced me to a new term: “sustainable intensification.” In two words, it describes what should be the goal of farmers around the planet: We need to grow more with less, while at the same time preserving the environment and remaining economically profitable.
We’re trying to do our part here in New Zealand, at our farm near the town of Methven on the South Island. On several hundred acres, we grow a variety of crops, including wheat, ryegrass, radish, carrots, and barley. We also run a dairy operation milking 1,250 cows.
We’re under constant pressure to do more with less. The economic reality of being fully exposed to global markets due to the lack of subsidies forces me to keep down the costs of production. Policy changes are increasingly limiting our water use and nitrate outputs, which affects our ability to apply fertilizer and the stocking rate on the land. We are always trying to grow the best crops at the right time in the face of climate conditions.
Technology a top ally
Technology is one of our most important allies. We use crop sensors, electromagnetic mapping, zonal and grid soil sampling. If an affordable new technology can give us a slight advantage, we seize it.
These are all keys to sustainable intensification. So is biotechnology. In many nations, farmers can beat back weeds and pests with genetically modified crops. As a result, they’re producing huge amounts of food.
We don’t enjoy the GM option in New Zealand, where biotech crops are practically nonexistent. They’re grown in a few highly regulated test plots for research purposes. Ordinary farmers like me have no access to them.
That’s okay for now, because existing GM seeds don’t satisfy our particular needs. Many of the diseases and pests that plague farmers elsewhere don’t occur here, and our stringent border controls aim to keep it that way. At most, biotechnology could assist in a few niche markets.
But that will change as biotechnology matures and tackles new challenges. Drought resistance is an especially attractive trait. Farmers everywhere seek to conserve water–and here, we’re working to get the most from our moisture through intensive irrigation management.
Plants that make more efficient use of water are the very essence of sustainable intensification. As biotechnology begins to deliver these innovations, we’ll need to take full advantage of them. Water is the biggest issue that is facing the world and biotechnology will be one of the key drivers to increase water use efficiency.
There are other possibilities as well, including crops with improved nitrogen response and varieties of wheat that people with gluten intolerance can consume.
New Zealand is a small country, with a population of about 4.4 million people, which is roughly equal to metropolitan Boston or Phoenix. We’re pretty small players in the business of global food production.
That’s the other thing about sustainable intensification: To meet the world’s swelling demand for food, we must use every resource we have. That includes boosting yields on huge farms in Kansas, helping Africa meet its full potential as a breadbasket, and making sure that even far-off New Zealand has the best technology to make the most of what we can contribute.
Craige Mackenzie uses precision agriculture tools and techniques to produce specialty seed crops including wheat, ryegrass, fescue, hybrid carrots, hybrid radish, pak choi, spinach and chicory along with a dairy operation in Methven, New Zealand. Craige is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter.
More from Western Farm Press