'Mumbo jumbo' ecological farming won't feed a growing population

Applying targeted solutions at a farm level is the best way of reducing farming's environmental impact, Andrew Hoggard says.
Warwick Smith

Applying targeted solutions at a farm level is the best way of reducing farming's environmental impact, Andrew Hoggard says.

OPINION: 

All farmers, not just those in dairy, have recently been told that the world will be better off if we just switch to ecological farming.

The first question is 'what the hell is ecological farming'? Going online to try to find that out doesn't provide a lot of detailed answers for any farmer looking to change their system.

It does deliver up a whole swag of cutesy catchphrases and associated mumbo jumbo. The main contention seems to be that modern agriculture is broken and we must go forward to the past.

Is modern agriculture broken? There is no justification given for this claim. If the goal of agriculture is to feed people, then a  simple measure of whether the global agriculture system is broken or not is whether there are more or fewer hungry people in the world today than in the past.

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A quick look at the Global Hunger Index shows that between 1992-2016, it went down from 35.3 to 21.3 in the developing world.

Of course in the developed world the issue is the opposite to hunger; in that same time frame we have added an extra two billion mouths to the planet to feed.

Is that broken? If you look at what percentage of their income people spend on food, that too has been tracking down over time.

When I read about so-called ecological farming, I can only view it as subsistence farming. It talks about growing a diverse range of crops, no fertiliser, no chemicals, no water.

There is the idyllic view of some farmer out tending their little garden by hand. You're left with the impression that the farmer is happy. Well, I did see that in Africa on a safari back in my youth.

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The farmer had this tiny plot, a maize crop that was knee high and they had the begging bowl out for the tourists. Down the road was a government research farm, with some UN funding, modern farming practices, centre pivot irrigator and a maize crop over my head.

So rather than turn agriculture back to the 1800s, how might we address the environmental impacts that agriculture has? The answer isn't applying blanket hash tag answers across the country, it's about applying targeted solutions at the farm level.

That means identifying what the critical source areas are on each farm and targeting resources and expenditure to that.

Some farms are probably over-stocked and reducing cow numbers could lead to a more profitable system. But on other farms, the stocking rate could well be right, but by investing in a wetland where tile drains might empty could well provide the best bang for buck.

In a hill country drystock situation, you could well force fencing off of every stream on the steep hills and gullies, which would be extremely costly and force many of those sheep and beef farms out of business.

Or you could just target the farms' flats where winter cropping may take place, and the efficiency of the spend will be much greater. One last point - there have been a lot of lies told about how DairyNZ isn't doing anything about improving the environmental performance of the country's dairy farms, and that they are ignoring the problem.

I would encourage people to visit the DairyNZ website and click on the environment tab. You will see a huge list of resources that have been created for dairy farmers to assist and guide them with managing the environment.

I personally have been involved with a couple of the resources listed. They were not simple, bland statements copied and pasted from an international website. They took various meetings and discussions and reviews from farmers, scientists and other experts, and often involved regional councils.

Farming may have been in denial over a decade ago but I can honestly say that in the 10 years I have been involved in things I have not seen that denial at an industry level.

I have seen true effort made to try to do better and to reduce our impact on the environment, while maintaining the positive contribution to the nation's economy.

Andrew Hoggard is the Federated Farmers dairy industry group chairman.

 - Stuff

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