The Future by Airbus

By Robert Hickson 27/09/2012

I’ve been looking at the latest instalment of The Future by Airbus and considering how it compares to the way some New Zealand sectors are looking toward the future. Their latest work is centred on “smarter skies”, and they look at 5 concepts associated with reducing fuel and energy emissions. Their horizon is 2050.

Airbus’ approach is less about predicting what will come to pass and more about generating ideas about a possible future – based on surveying passengers as well as considering engineering and design possibilities. They have also produced a fancy sound and light show to launch it, but that is more style than substance.

The New Zealand approach is, crudely, less about ideas and imagined futures and more to do with how we can sell more (valuable) stuff in a more environmentally sustainable way. Noble goals to be sure, but not that inspiring. And as the Riddet Institute’s “Call to Arms” report notes (echoing Sir Paul Callaghan), we can be good at producing such reports but not acting on them.

New Zealand strategic time horizons are usually only 10 to 15 years. Examples are Fonterra’s strategy, the Strategy for New Zealand Dairy Farming, the Riddet Institute’s Agri-Food Strategy, and the Forest Wood Strategic Action Plan. However, Victoria University has done work on looking at tourism in 2050, and the Auckland Plan looks out 30 years. On the other hand MFAT’s India and China strategies have a pitiful 3 to 4 year horizon.

I like Airbus’ approach, particularly their engaging with future travellers and young engineering graduates. That brings in fresh ideas and provides more interest and vibrancy than a dry strategic plan developed by a small group. Most of the NZ primary production strategies note the problem of attracting skilled workers to farming but struggle to find ways of how to solve it.

A key limitation I see in the farming and food strategies is their focus on products. They give less attention to the farming and post-harvest systems that sit around the product pipelines. These systems will change quite significantly over the coming decades, due to:

  • More expensive and/or volatile oil prices
  • Climate change
  • An increasing focus on sustainable production practices
  • Increasing competition from overseas producers
  • Demographic changes – fewer young folk are going into farming
  • Changing farm ownership patterns – farm sizes are tending to increase and more are likely to be run by corporations
  • Increasing technological precision, resulting in greater tailoring of plant and animal traits, feeding and fertilizer regimes, and control of the farm environment and the processing chains.
  • Increased integration of agricultural and industrial systems (to produce food, fibres, fuels and other materials)

What “smarter farming” concepts and  innovations will be important for how New Zealand farms? NZ’s future in agriculture may have more to do with how we farm rather than what we produce. Agility and diversity rather than large scale monoculture and a limited product range is what we need to think more about. And farming system expertise is exportable and profitable knowledge.

Here’s my starter list:

  1. Profit in diversity – back to the future with less specialised farms reliant on a single pasture type and single farming style. More integrated farms with various beasts and crops to spread the risks and develop new production opportunities.
  2. Low input farming – smarter use of water, fertilisers and pesticides through sensors, modelling and automation to reduce operating costs and adverse environmental impacts (we are already on the way to this, but there’s a long way to go).
  3. Data intensive farming – mining and analysing individual animal performance & welfare data, environmental conditions, nutrient loads, plant growth rates, and market trends to optimise and anticipate the next seasons farming plan.
  4. Integrated energy, water and waste management systems – farms that power and recycle themselves.
  5. Eco-logic farming – greater use of “terraforming” farms (ie changing the landscape) to enhance production and sustainability; including use of wetlands and  native plants to enhance biodiversity and better manage water and wastes.
  6. “Just in time” production – more flexible production & processing systems that respond quickly to market demands. For example, matching beef & lamb grazing to particular pasture/crops to provide meat with particular flavour, texture or nutrient characteristics.