Our shrinking food bowl

Stats NZ and the Ministry for the Environment have just published Our land 2021, continuing the second cycle of environmental reporting by those two state agencies. It updates Our land 2018 and the second theme ‘How we use our land’ from Environment Aotearoa 2019, and it highlights the sprawl of urban and semi-urban (lifestyle) properties over the country’s good, if not the best, producing land.
In short – it shows we are fast burying our “food bowl” under concrete.
This has not just happened. The issue and the implications have been evident for at least 25 years – many would argue much longer. But in our clamour to grow the population we are ruining the ability to feed ourselves.
Urban sprawl has enveloped land that once efficiently grew fruit and vegetables – foods that are hard to import fresh. This has consequences for quality with respect to vitamin levels and other nutritional components.
Despite the social, economic and nutritional implications of this insidious development and the rapid loss of productive land, Radio New Zealand (RNZ) chose to find a pretext for another attack on dairy industry growth. But dairy was the seventh of 12 items listed in a summary distributed to news media:
“Dairy cattle numbers have more than doubled since the 1980s, rising from 3 million to almost 7 million in 2015, with more than 6 million in 2019.” 
RNZ – alas – has become a mouthpiece for the anti-dairy lobby.

Science and productivity

More media attention should have been paid to the number and size of farms decreasing since 2002 whereas export income from farming products has increased. Fewer farms – clearly – are producing more food and fibre on less land.  It’s fair to suggest science explains at least some of this increase in production.
The change is quite stark.  Between 2002 and 2019 the area of land used across New Zealand for: agriculture and horticulture decreased steadily with an overall decrease of 1.9 million hectares or 14%, dairy farming increased 991,000 hectares (81%), sheep farming decreased 1.7 million hectares (29%) and beef farming decreased 1.3 million hectares (32%).
That is a lot of land freed up, presumably mostly to the Crown and conservation estate, but this is rarely mentioned by the mainstream media.
When you look at the period between 2017 and 2019, however, the Marlborough and Canterbury regions had the largest decrease in the area of land being used for dairy farms.
It was a loss of around 36,000 (78% of what was in the region), and 33,000 hectares (9% of what was in the region) respectively.
Did RNZ or any of the anti-dairy lobby mention this. Well… not that I heard!


Also of note was phosphorus. In New Zealand, the use of phosphorus fertiliser peaked in 2005 and has reduced since then, but the phosphorus exceedance footprint PEF per capita of this country is the largest in the world (remembering we export a lot of this phosphorus as food).  This is especially true for dairy (milk is full of calcium hydrogen phosphate – which is a good source of dietary calcium) and cropping land. It does beg the question of why PEF is cited as ‘per capita’. I think it would be better denominated in terms of high quality food produced.
You might think the reduction in the use of phosphorus fertilisers would be celebrated – or at very least better acknowledged – in the context of the above-mentioned gains in agricultural land-use performance. Alas, it wasn’t.
Despite citing the work of McDowell et al (2019; Why are median phosphorus concentrations improving in New Zealand streams and rivers? Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 49(2), 143–170) the Land Use report didn’t pick up on the very obvious and positive trend reflected in the paper’s title or attempt to explain how or why we might be getting improvement.
McDowell et al do suggest that ‘the most probable causes were that strategies were mitigating P loss from land, guidelines were directing where to best use strategies, and policy instruments were including P management. These findings support the development and implementation of mitigations, supported by voluntary guidelines and regulation’.
You wouldn’t want to let science get in the way of an argument, though, and – of course – we can always do better, because synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use is an elephant in the room for New Zealand agriculture.

The cost of eating

My attention was drawn to an article in Independent Science News titled Agriculture’s Greatest Myth. It’s the sort of thing that has always intrigued me.
I stress to students that in my father’s youth (he is still alive at 90+), food consumed a smidgen (or two!) more of the weekly family budget. While there is some considerable variation based on how wealthy you are/were and/or whether you have access directly to a farm, New Zealand consumers who used to spend up to 40% of the weekly income on food, are likely to be paying 20% or less today.
It is notable, though, that food is a greater proportion of weekly spend in New Zealand relative to other similar countries (Australia, Canada, United States and United Kingdom), and this despite our talent at producing export food.

Export growth

Good news persists for the farm and horticultural sectors on the economic front. Despite RNZ’s obsession with things negative about the dairy industry, they did report that ‘the main driver was the strength of global dairy prices, which gained 12.7% in March, the highest in seven years, with whole milk powder, a key driver of farmer returns, 43% higher than last year’.
COVID-19 has apparently not damaged the Chinese appetite for New Zealand dairy products.
Meat export prices are also high, albeit the drought up and down the East Coast becoming extremely problematic. Here is a good friend of mine, Roger Beattie, telling the story about the drought. A bit of rain is long overdue.

Scholarships and foreigners

And now for a venture into New Zealand science politics – the MBIE Whitinga Scholarships:
I raised the issue with the Royal Society Constituents Organisations thus:
“One issue that has been raised with me by my membership and with other university staff is around the MBIE Whitinga Fellowships, and specifically why they are targeted to ONLY citizens and PRs. Some of us feel this is an oversight, and that we need to accommodate non-citizens and non-PRs, who have nevertheless completed their PhDs in New Zealand.”

The following response was received from the Chair of the Constituent Organisations, Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng:

“Thanks for your message. I will raise this at the RSNZ Council meeting next week.
Some further thoughts from me – 
“This requirement is consistent with the requirements for other schemes (e.g. Rutherford Postdoctoral Fellowships and Rutherford Discovery Fellowships).
“Here at UoA, there is a strong pattern of people returning to New Zealand to settle after time overseas studying or doing postdocs. It is my understanding the Whitinga scheme is targeting these people.
“Recent analysis of the university workforce shows it is highly internationalised (with large numbers of people who have taken up permanent roles here from overseas) with low numbers in Māori and Pacific researchers. The selection process is specifically designed to appoint a minimum number of Māori and Pacific fellows to address this. While many excellent international students do come to New Zealand to study, it is my understanding that MBIE and RSNZ are working to overcome the exclusion of excellent Māori and Pacific researchers as a priority.
“I have supervised a number of excellent international PhD students. I am always very clear with them from the beginning that there are very few roles available for them here in New Zealand when they finish. I believe it is important they are not given false hope about long-term prospects here and I suggest they explore opportunities in other countries if they want to remain overseas once they finish their studies. I have not found any students who did not come in being transparent like this but they have been able to plan for future steps from the start because I have been open about the situation. I do help them find roles in other countries by introducing them to my international networks, letting them know about positions available and writing reference letters, as I’m sure we all do. We can support our students in many ways and finding a position for them in New Zealand cannot be an expected outcome when there are so few positions available.
“I sympathise with the individual students who have made excellent contributions but I am fully in support of the residency requirement. However, I will check with Council to confirm the position.”

I responded to Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng:

Thanks for your detailed comment Cate.
“It does seem very odd to me that we would welcome foreign PhD students by offering them the opportunity to study and only pay domestic fees, but then deny the best ones the opportunity to progress on to employment in post-doctoral positions like these.
“This stated, funding for research is still miserly in New Zealand, and until job security (think Massey redundancies) and salaries improve, then I doubt any recruiting mechanism of this kind will work.”

Plant Science Central Conference 

2021 Plant Science Central Conference
6-8 July 2021
Ag/Hort Lecture Block, Massey University, Palmerston North

Registrations are open for the 3-day Plant Science Central Conference. This year sessions will include the following research themes:

  • Gene editing
  • Fruit and vegetables for Health
  • All aspects of postharvest physiology and technology
  • Secondary plant metabolism
  • Tree & Vine Physiology
  • Germplasm conservation

For Registration form and Abstract template visit the AgScience website HERE


NZIAHS Canterbury Forum
Wednesday 27th October 2021
Sustainable and Profitable Farming – What is our brand?
(Programme to follow)

IHC 2022
14-20 August 2022
Horticulture for a World in Transition

Prof Jon Hickford
NZIAHS President