By Robert Hickson 16/09/2017

In our own cultural memory New Zealand used to have the best farming system in the world. No more, according to some.

Two recent articles about the Netherlands illustrate how we are falling behind in some ways, and can provide a stimulus for how we can do better.

National Geographic highlights the Netherland’s sustainable agricultural system in this month’s issue of their magazine.

“ Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent.”


A big part of the article focuses on their international collaborations and projects.

Source: National Geographic


It is certainly an interesting read, although it paints, perhaps, a too rosy picture of agriculture and agricultural policy in the Netherlands. The OECD notes where the Netherlands still needs to improve (and here). But still, the OECD always points out what can be done better (according to them), and there is no denying that the Dutch have made impressive advances over the last few decades.


Meanwhile, down on the NZ farm

New Zealand likes to say that we feed the world too, but we don’t seem to be doing it so well as the Netherlands. By value NZ is the 12th  top agricultural exporter.

Of course there are big differences between the Dutch and New Zealand agricultural systems, economic policies, and their closeness to international markets. So direct comparisons aren’t that useful.

Sure, we get good returns on our agricultural exports, and we are good at producing large volumes of milk proteins, apples, kiwi fruit, and wine. But we don’t yet have a national commitment to sustainable agriculture that is meaningful.

We are still arguing about what amount of pollution still makes a river swimmable. We aren’t managing soils and nutrients well, and our dependence on water and pesticides isn’t declining.

There are changes underway. We have strategies. And we certainly have some excellent sustainable agricultural research and practices (and here), but these aren’t yet widely or consistently used on a scale that seems to match the Netherlands.

Only now boosting what was the Sustainable Farming Fund to what still seems a paltry $20 million per year seems like a couple of decades too late.

We also have excellent agricultural and horticultural collaborations with other countries, but those don’t yet seem to be on the same scale as the Netherlands (or we are less public about celebrating them).


Farming in New Zealand is the proverbial curate’s egg, good in parts.

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”
“True Humility” by George du Maurier, originally published in Punch, 9 November 1895.


Compared to the Dutch we still seem to be more “forming” rather than “performing” in terms of sustainable agriculture.

We are at risk of after having spent decades building better farming systems being overtaken by others with a greater focus on the key issues.

Much like the Netherlands learned water management from the US a century ago, and then did it so much better.

Understandably so, when lots of your country is below sea level, and you spend 7 billion euros a year on managing the water systems. They are now developing a “digital delta” to look at how to reduce future costs.

“The Netherlands is pioneering – and, where possible, marketing – insights, attitudes, and technologies in demand around the world as weather worsens and seas rise.”


The future farm

Just playing sustainability catch-up isn’t going to be enough now for agriculture in New Zealand.

There are a lot of new technological developments that are, and will be, affecting farming. Not to mention changing consumption patterns,  shrinking rural communities, changing perceptions to aspects of farming, and political decisions about taxes and regulations.

There are many new approaches to producing foods now that don’t have the same environmental costs as traditional methods, and which will soon be economically, and socially desirable

So, what can New Zealand do to become, in some respects a Netherlands of the Southern Hemisphere? Or will farming, as a large commercial enterprise, become less relevant here over the coming decades?

As I touched on in an earlier post, the bigger challenge for new technologies and practices is integrating them into existing systems. This will be the same for farming. As The Economist and others have noted, farming is becoming more like manufacturing. Some also suggest that the future of small farming may be something like a “platform service” – a place where other businesses grow.

Rather than focus just on the farm as an isolated unit we need to look beyond how farmers will use drones, robots, or sensor systems. There is a transition in what and how we farm. We need to give more thought to how the technological, biological, environmental, economic and social systems on and off the farm all need to work well together. I highlighted this in one of my science scenarios (behind a pay wall, unfortunately) a few years ago.

We have started paying more attention to some of the biological-environmental interactions, but not the whole system yet. As with “smart” energy systems and “smart” cities, we need to look at how innovations and old practices come together. It is not just about creating the new and shiny “widget”, but how to integrate a diverse set of things and behaviours.

That’s where New Zealand farming may be able to develop the “insights, attitudes, and technologies” that make it the envy of many again.


Featured image: from the author.