By Dr Trevor Stuthridge
Amid all of the disruption and challenges brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, some bright lights have shone through that provide reason for optimism for New Zealand in a post-pandemic world.
One has been the performance of our agriculture sector, which has stoically carried on through the health crisis – ensuring a safe, quality food supply to New Zealanders, and maintaining crucial earnings from our export markets.
Another has been the level of public trust placed in our scientists – particularly in the health sciences – and how those scientists have stepped up to provide the best advice to keep New Zealanders safe and guide our country through this.
The path ahead is by no means certain, and further global shocks could still be to come. The question now, as we look ahead to how New Zealand may fare post the COVID-19 crisis, is how we best leverage the performance of those farmers and scientists, and what innovations we can make to best position our economy and the outlook for our people.
Therefore, longer term, a key consideration is how we continue to build resilience into our agricultural sector, and as scientists how we help provide the tools to do that.
As one example, digital agriculture is already well-recognised as a means for farmers to stay competitive. As we emerge from this health crisis, it will be more important than ever to harness these rapidly growing technologies and the vast amount of data they can generate on and off farm to optimise production efficiencies and reinforce the quality and provenance of our products.
Consumers more than ever are demanding high ethical standards in food production. That means not just showing that animal wellbeing is a critical priority, but also how we looked after the land it is raised on, how we actively use all the by-products generated during production, and how we uphold the cultural values that New Zealand prides itself on.
The environmental challenges and expectations on farmers are increasing, and the Government’s recently announced freshwater reforms including stricter controls on nitrogen pollution are a demonstration of this. In the climate change space, expectations are also changing, and in this area it is encouraging to see a lot of research to mitigate the effects of agricultural greenhouse gases coming to the fore. At AgResearch, for example, our research has shown we can safely breed lower methane emitting sheep, and that knowledge is now being rolled out to sheep breeders in New Zealand.
AgResearch scientists are also working to better measure quality of life for the animals, and how to keep adding to our welfare practices, investigating opportunities to create a circular bioeconomy for New Zealand, as well as supporting the optimal use of land that helps the farmer make a living while also protecting that land for future generations.
None of these innovations are easy of course. They require significant investments in research, time and money – and close alliances between the industry, science and innovation providers, and the Government.
If we can build on the exceptional performance and response of New Zealand through the health crisis, there is no question we can come out of it stronger and better placed than ever.
Dr Trevor Stuthridge is research director for AgResearch