New Zealand's long-term farming strategy questioned in think tank report

Kiwi farmers are going to need to make some major changes to keep up with the times, according to a report released on Wednesday.

In the wake of COVID-19, the food sector needs to leverage New Zealand's current reputation as having largely defeated the virus and commit to ensuring the sustainable future of food production, states the report by think tank Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Future.

Admitting that shifting the food production system to become environmentally sustainable "is not without challenges", the report warns that "business-as-usual, incremental approaches will not lead to the necessary transformation".

Among the issues needing to be addressed are land use, water-access rights and water and quality issues, the authors argue.

Dr Anne Bardsley, deputy director at Koi Tū and one of the authors, says the recent pandemic has highlighted the fact there needs to be a long-term strategy for the country over our food production system.

All the issues needing to be addressed were present before the outbreak but "COVID has put an accelerator on that", she said.

"It's about thinking more long term than we have been and thinking about where consumer demands are going, the pressures from climate change and other environmental impacts of food production, particularly with proteins," Dr Bardsley told the AM Show on Wednesday.

"There's a call for moving away from animal based products so we need to think about long term what that means for New Zealand's ways of farming and other food production systems."

Last month the Government announced new freshwater regulations aimed at addressing some of the issues highlighted in the report. The new rules came after a consultation period last year that received more than 17,500 submissions and are aimed at improving the country's rivers and lakes by stopping farm run-off entering waterways.

Although farming practices have often been vilified for environmental reasons, Dr Bardsley said the sector had been working hard in recent years to become cleaner.

"Farmers have gotten a bad rap for a long time about environmental impacts but the sector really has been working on this and it's time to actually put that all together into a refreshed national brand that can take advantage of our elevated status in the world at the moment, and really take that onboard at the moment that the New Zealand food system is a sustainable, environmentally friendly and value-spaced system."

The report calls for farmers, Government and researchers to work together to create a long-term plan for sustainable food production in the country.

And while urgent action is needed in some areas, the goal is to develop a solid strategy to be well-prepared for the future, the authors say.

"We're not talking about drastic action overnight," Dr Bardsley said.