Paul Gilding is not one to dodge difficult questions - or mince words about the challenges we face. As the keynote, kick-off speaker at the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) conference Growing Green: Transformation of farming, fishing and forestry, his topic was: Feeding the world and saving the planet - Can we do both?
An Australian by birth, Gilding has served as global head of Greenpeace, taught at Cambridge University, and provided business sustainability advice to some of the world's largest companies.
In recent years, his mission has been to enlighten business leaders, politicians and the public about our interrelated environmental and economic challenges. It's all nicely summarised in his book The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy.
Not without a sense of humour, Gilding notes that the subtitle of the book's local edition was a bit too subtle for the North American market. To get their attention, it was changed to Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.
"We have been borrowing from the future, and the debt has fallen due," he writes in The Great Disruption and tells audiences.
"We have reached or passed the limits of our current economic model of consumer-driven material economic growth.
"We have physically entered a period of great change, a synchronised, related crash of the economy and the ecosystem, with food shortages, climate catastrophes, massive economic change, and global geopolitical instability.
"It has been forecast for decades, and the moment has now arrived."
It's a striking note on which to start a conference - especially a conference in a small, isolated country, much reliant on exports, and one that prides itself in helping to "feed the world", but with obvious natural resource constraints.
The conference, run by EDS in association with Federated Farmers, grappled with these broad issues, framing them with two practical questions: "How can we green farming, forestry and fishing?" and "How can we diversify our economy and speed the development of low carbon, low environmental impact goods and services?"
Glenn Simmons, from the University of Auckland Business School, was quick to point out opportunities in fishing.
Significant economic benefits can come from using more of each fish caught, creating higher value fish products, reducing waste, and developing new industries out of marine by-products. He suggests we look to Iceland for inspiration, ideas and technologies.
Trevor Stuthridge, Scion's general manager of sustainable design, talked of a future forest industry with new products, new markets and new revenue. Adding to the traditional timber and pulp and paper base, he noted opportunities in smart packaging, biofuels and bioenergy, new biomaterials, fine chemicals, pharmaceuticals and waste recovery.
Challenges in farming abound, especially with the Government's economic growth agenda calling for a near trebling of the real value of agrifood exports by 2025.
Rob Morrison, chairman of Pure Advantage, in his conference address discussed how to leverage our competitive advantage for green growth, but also offered a note of caution: "Government sits too much in the camp of ‘any growth is good growth', and that's not right," he said.
The Riddet Institute's report, A Call to Arms: A Contribution to a New Zealand Agri-Food Strategy, much discussed at the conference, notes that New Zealand specialises in protein foods, yet we produce only enough protein to feed about 45 million people (or enough total calories to feed 20 million).
So we need to be realistic in our aspirations - and operate appropriately. There is cause for optimism, given the collaborative work of the Land and Water Forum (the creation of an earlier EDS conference). The forum, which involves 62 organisations, is wrestling with the issues of natural resource limits, good land use management, and improved methods for water allocation.
We can only hope the Government will value the forum's recommendations in their entirety, not just focus on ones that suit their "any growth is good growth" agenda.
Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry and non-profit organisations.
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