By Robert Hickson 12/07/2018

The agricultural sector has long been called a “sunset industry”. If so, it’s more a long drawn out polar twilight than a quick tropical dusk.

Rosie Bosworth has written about New Zealand becoming the ‘Detroit of Agriculture’. Scary stuff, for some. A welcome transformation for others, if you read the opinion pieces.

But are predictions of the death of farming greatly exaggerated?

The recent brouhaha over Air NZ promoting a vegetarian burger option on some of its flights highlights, again, some of the challenges facing farming.

The challenges include:

  • The ongoing transition from family farming to industrial farming systems.
  • Attracting and retaining a skilled workforce.
  • A growing proportion of the population with little connection to, or understanding of, rural New Zealand and agricultural practices.
  • Growing concerns about the mental health of farmers, and their relatively high suicide rates
  • Increasing concerns about the adverse environmental impacts and ethics of livestock farming.
  • Significant biosecurity events, or threats, such as Mycoplasma bovis.
  • Shifts in developed countries toward less meat-based diets.
  • And, of course, technological changes in food production systems, including but not limited to new ways of producing proteins.

On the other hand, growing populations, and rising incomes in Asia, mean meat consumption is rising. However, it’s poultry and pork that have the highest demand.

And much of our beef exports are low-value products destined for American burgers.

There is though a growing interest in more “artisanal”, less industrial, ways of producing food. Whether companies like CrowdCow are just a passing fad or a viable cottage industry remain to be seen. Here in NZ, the Happy Cow Milk Co. has been finding it tough.

Beyond the pundits

So, beyond the headlines and punditry how can you better understand, and influence, the future of farming? There are some effective foresight techniques to help.

A useful starting point is the “Futures Triangle”, conceived by Sohail Inayatullah. This makes you consider not only your vision of the future that you’d like (or reject; what Sohail calls the “pull of the future”) and the factors driving change (the “push of the present”), but also the things that can be barriers to change (the “weight of the past”).

The interaction of these require you to consider a range of possible futures. You need to consider several because the future isn’t predictable. The possible futures are intended to inform your strategy, and in a changing world it is good to remain flexible and adaptable.

If we look at farming some of the weights are our traditional approach to farming (pasture-based, family farms), commodity focus (as opposed to higher value products), our long distance to key markets, and the comparatively small volumes of products we produce.

Future farming scenarios

A range of possible futures come to mind from this brief assessment:

1. Dead cow. Animal farming is no longer viable as an export industry, though it still exists to supply local needs.

2. Sacred cow. We continue to farm for yesterday’s markets, with some technological innovations to make it more efficient. But this would seem to lead eventually to the Dead cow scenario if the world keeps a changing.

3. Cash cow. Farmers farm for emerging markets, going up the value chain to get better returns. This is the classic consultant option, but has been hard for meat producers to crack here. It’s not just about the farmer, but about the meat processing sector too. So we need to stop just thinking about the farm, and consider how the processing side can be “disrupted” (and not just through robots that are wonderfully efficient at slicing up carcasses).

4. Holy cow. Farming for a “post-food” world. This is a world where a farm is more than a food producer, but provides other services too – energy and environmental services, or retirement villages, for example. It may not be solely a rural enterprise either if high tech urban farms become viable.

For scenarios 2-4 I can see the potential for all to adopt more of a franchise-type model as the automated and data-driven side of agriculture grows. Decisions on how, what and when to farm may be dictated by the company controlling the franchises. And/Or, as with CrowdCow, alliances and agreements are built up between the farming and processing sectors so that highly defined product performance requirements are set. What distinguishes the scenarios is less about new technologies. It is more about what they see as the products and services that farming provides.

Foresight needs a narrative

Sohail also stresses the importance of narratives not just strategies. The narrative of farming here has long been “we are feeding the world”.  That was never the case, but it was an effective mantra for a while. No longer. In a world where how we live and what we eat are becoming more problematic a narrative about farming being about “sustaining the soul and the environment” will be needed.

Featured image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

0 Responses to “Thinking beyond the impossible burger”

  • We appear to be still focused on everything above the soil, and ignoring the soil and its life, and how we are treating it now. Soil is not just a chemical factory, and the myriad forms of life within it are what will make us survive, or not. At present the NZ science fraternity are firmly fixed on chemicals, and the productivity of our soils is going down, whether admitted to or not. Until we turn to assisting Nature, by using and amplifying her own systems, we shall continue to degrade our soil, pollute our freshwaters, and blame our animals (especially cows) for daring to burp methane and pee nitrogen, which only occurs because of the nitrates fed in at the front end which can’t be coped with by the rumen.