Environment, not agriculture, is New Zealand's economic backbone
The environment and not agriculture is the backbone of the New Zealand economy, says 2015 Nuffield Scholar Dan Steele.
Steele said farming and tourism depended on New Zealand's environmental image to sell its products offshore, making the two inextricably linked
The sheep, beef and tourism operator at Blue Ducks Station, on the Whanganui River, has published the report 'Why being true to brand New Zealand is the best option for New Zealand agriculture' after completing research for the scholarship intended to influence decisions affecting farmers.
The environment was New Zealand's unique selling point, he said.
New Zealand's environment gave it a competitive advantage but the country lacked an over-arching vision that united agriculture. New Zealand's 100 per cent pure brand marketed it as a destination and extended to its agricultural products.
"Agriculture and tourism, New Zealand's two main export industries, are inherently linked and both will live or die on our environmental health and reputation, but our environment is regressing and unless this is addressed now, our economy will regress."
If New Zealand was seen as genuinely striving to achieve this vision, it would bolster its reputation and better link choices made in environmental management with its international brand.
"This demands that we recognise that economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive."
The opportunity was staring New Zealanders in the face, he said.
"Most of the world still consider us a paradise, however travellers coming here are starting to realise we are not as green as they had hoped we'd be. We need to change this perception."
The scholarship saw Steele undertake two world tours in 2015 visiting 12 countries to gather data on the relationship between agriculture, tourism and the environment.
He did the study after realising the close links New Zealanders had to the environment while establishing Blue Ducks Station's eco-tourism operation, where visitors stayed to see and participate in the programme.
The property covers 1400 hectares of mostly steep terrain in one of New Zealand's more remote back country locations at the confluence of the Retaruke River flowing into the Whanganui River, and is surrounded by the Whanganui National Park.
The station farms sheep and beef and a proportion of the income is also derived from manuka honey with land cleared last century now reclaimed as manuka bush.
Blue Duck Station's tourism operation receives 8000 domestic and international visitors a year. Along with some new buildings, old shearers quarters have been transformed into visitor accommodation and abandoned buildings from the post World War 1 era have been restored and are now used by tourists.
The same visitors spend money on experiencing farm life and farm-based activities have evolved to include bush walking, kayaking on the Whanganui River, horse trekking, bush safaris/farm tours, guided hunting, clay target shooting and jet boating to the historic Bridge to Nowhere.
Steele said the 100 per cent pure brand marketed New Zealand as a destination and its agricultural products, but New Zealand does not have a clear economic, environmental or any other strategic plan or vision.
"If business and environmental leaders think New Zealand does not have a meaningful strategic plan or are doing a poor job of it, then New Zealand has a major issue here. The public are becoming more concerned about the state of their nation and its resources."
That lack of vision or public backing means agriculture was at risk of losing the social licence to operate, he said.
"New Zealand needs a collaborative strategy, an overall vision for the environment, particularly in relation to farms and farming is lacking, one must be developed.
"This must be run by a non-government multi industry think tank with government support. The Land and Water Forum could be an ideal body to develop and implement such a vision."
New Zealand cannot continue to trade off a beautiful clean green image and at the same time destroy the environment.
" New Zealand needs a plan of who we are going to be and how we are going to fit into the world market, the plan needs to be collaborative between our main industries, agriculture and tourism. There are some big obstacles to overcome such as climate change, water quality and biodiversity management and it will take a large shift in thinking to set us on the path we need to be."
The environment is important to New Zealanders and there was a growing interest in food sustainability as people were becoming more aware of food origins and the impact of food production on the global environment. Using the environment as a unique selling point would allow agricultural products to be leveraged to gain maximum value.
While everyone needs to eat, it is how New Zealand was producing the food that is concerning consumers, he said.
"Farmers need to own up to the environmental issues and then leapfrog urban expectations for environmental management producing healthier food and products from healthier ecosystems and diversifying and adding value to what we do."
Steele said New Zealand faced a challenge on how it could be a productive and sustainable society without harming the environment, but there was no silver bullet solution.
"Our environment, which, if we care for it, it will care for us. The Golden Goose is not a quick fix like the silver bullet, but a long-term collaborative approach to address agriculture's balance with the environment and develop an integrative strategy for New Zealand's suitable economic future."