Climate change and rural confidence

07 Sep 2018

Carotts Field 2forweb

There has been a lot of talk in the media and in boardrooms about a drop in business confidence. This is also a hot topic in the rural sector, with some of the employment law changes causing concerns about the ongoing financial viability of businesses, and economic growth stalling. An additional concern for the rural sector is the impact of climate change adaptation on primary industry businesses.

Recent reports published on climate change include models that increase hectares planted in trees, and in fruit and vegetables. Some models have fruit and vegetables increasing from today’s 116,000 hectares used for growing, to 1 million hectares. That’s a big increase in growing area and for horticulture, it will most likely come from what is now dairy land. Forests are more likely to be planted on sheep and beef land. The challenge with models is that they make predictions, but turning that into reality may not be easy.

Pastoral farmers face an uncertain future, one where what they are doing today, may not be possible tomorrow. Whatever climate change adaptation targets are set, there will need to be more trees planted and, on higher quality land, more horticulture. The first reason for increasing horticulture land is to feed New Zealand. As the impacts of climate change and population growth become more prevalent, New Zealand’s ability to import food will reduce.  

This focuses us on how we can grow enough fruit and vegetables to feed New Zealand. Already, growing vegetables is being forced out of Pukekohe by houses, new vegetable growing is not possible in the Waikato or Horowhenua regions, and vegetable crops cannot be rotated in Canterbury – all due to the regional plans and their sole focus on pastoral farming. Having local government plans that enable horticulture is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently. Climate change will impact on where and how we grow crops but at the moment, there are not a lot of places to expand horticulture.

The second reason is to continue to feed our economy by exporting food. The world’s population is growing by around 80 million people a year, and intensive farming of plant proteins will be needed to feed more people. In New Zealand, we grow high-quality fruit and vegetables that warrant a premium in export markets. We believe we can continue to command a premium for our food. But to expand horticulture and maintain that premium, we need to invest in automation, developing new cultivars and improve access to new and growing markets. 

While expanding horticulture production significantly is possible, a whole suite of enabling actions are required, including: versatile soils are protected; adequate water is allocated; nutrient allocation that permits growing fruit and vegetables is put in place; and there needs to be recognition that many crops will need to be covered to protect them from adverse weather and to manage nutrient leaching. 

Access to water will become more problematic as climate change brings long, dry spells. Water storage is required not only for plants, but also for animals and people. 

To relieve the uncertainty causing low business and rural confidence, decision-making on climate change adaptation must be based on robust science. We need to know there is sound policy around how we can both feed New Zealand, and maintain our economy. We think that should include putting in place the necessary arrangements to enable growing both plants and animal proteins. 

The New Zealand Productivity Commission Low-emissions economy report was released this week and is available here.

- Mike Chapman, CEO