Extreme weather 'the new normal'

20:05, Jun 03 2013

Extreme weather and other forces will have a major bearing on agriculture by the year 2025, says Massey professor Danny Donaghy.

Climate change was having a major effect on agricultural systems as could be seen by the drought, he said.

"This summer's drought has shown us all how much New Zealand relies on its natural resources for its economic prosperity.

"These extreme weather events are not once-in-a-lifetime experiences any more, they are the new normal, and we need to build systems to reflect that.

"Surviving, let alone prospering, in this volatile environment will [require] agricultural systems that have harnessed technology, science and know-how."

Agriculture systems would have to be adapted to factors outside of New Zealand.

The world's population is rising rapidly and is projected to be nearly 8 billion by 2025, an increase of 14 per cent from today. Feeding these people will require agricultural systems with the scale to meet demand while reducing environmental footprints.

In Asia where most of the population growth is based, there is an increasing yearning for high quality food and fulfilling this sustainably was the key issue for agriculturalists here and overseas.

Donaghy, a professor in dairy production systems, said farmers could expect more volatility elsewhere.

"The instability of export markets and the climate are two of the major issues of the next decade," he said.

"The recent global financial crisis has shown us that business models must be constructed with the resilience needed to ride out tough economic conditions. The continuing volatility of export markets will continue to challenge food producers."

Likewise, the demands of consumers and regulators would shape how food is produced in the future, he said.

The "green" consumer element wanted information on the water, carbon and nutrient footprint of each product they bought at the supermarket. National and local governments were regulating to ensure the success of agriculture did not come at the expense of the environment.

Donaghy said more thought needed to be put into matching farming systems to the right environment.

Not all areas were suited to farming, with some areas ill-suited to intensive farming or animal systems, he said.

"This could be down to issues of soil type, topography and climate, or proximity to population centres, oceans, or sensitive environments," he said.

"Rather than continue to try and convert all land to the profitable farming system of the day, we can use technology such as geographic information systems, overlaid on data from studies of water quality, soil type, etc. to position our farms for the future."

Technology was helping farmers and growers increase production, monitor stock, crops and inputs and communicate with each other.

Today's milking sheds were using electronic identification tags to track the milk yield of individual cows. Collars were being used to predict when a cow came into heat based on the pattern of its activity. Out in the paddocks, pasture meters assessed the grass cover, travelling irrigators were guided by GPS, and drones mapped the landscape from overhead.

The demand for more food and higher quality food could lead to a divergence in farm systems.

Many farms would increase in size - but with greater efficiency and a smaller footprint - to meet the demand for bulk products. But there was also a move to smaller, niche farm systems with a focus on quality and unique artisan products.

Producers were working with universities and other research providers to develop functional foods helping maintain health and prevent disease.

Donaghy said the highly skilled agricultural workforce had to continue to adapt to the changing world and take up new technology and advances as they emerged.

"The farm worker of the future will be a life-long learner and that means educational institutions must tailor courses to enable technology and knowledge transfer," he said.

New Zealand was in a position to become a leader in distributing knowledge and already exported expertise and people to the world.

"We need to flip that around and make New Zealand an international hub to export education, training and technology in agricultural production systems," he said.