Innovation before taxation desirable
I doubt there has been an election campaign where agriculture has been such a hot topic.
I wish it were for the right reasons. Celebrating that food production still leads the way for the country in terms of international income, and will continue to do so for many decades, seems to me to be a good reason for us to be talking about the sector.
I have no political affiliations and have not yet decided who I will vote for, but I am incredibly frustrated by the debate around agriculture and how narrow and unimaginative it is. I would like us to expand the debate and think about innovation associated with agriculture as a solution to our challenges, rather than taxation seemingly being the answer to everything.
Yes, we have challenges. High commodity prices have led to land prices being out of whack with production which has led to greater intensification, short-term thinking and environmental damage.
In my view, much of this is reversible, but we need to do things differently, rather than apply penalties which do nothing to support a sector which pays for many of our roads, hospitals and schools.
Food producers are resilient and learn when things go wrong, we have come a long way in many of our farm practices - think back to mass shrub clearing and DDT. I have been greatly encouraged lately in conversations I have had with many land owners who are examining their businesses holistically. In this, many Maori-owned enterprises are leading the way, perhaps because they do not have a short-term view, and are driven to operate inter-generationally. Perhaps also, because they often own land with multiple uses. This allows for multiple income streams and when one stream is down, another is up, helping ride the market waves.
Such product and land diversification is more difficult for the average farmer who has a much smaller land-base and business enterprise. Generally, the cost of equipment means it is simpler for farmers to specialise, no need for cropping or horticultural equipment if one is a sheep and beef farmer and vice-versa.
But maybe this is an old way of thinking. Now, with our ability to connect, and rent or contract what we need, there should be more opportunities for land diversification. Think of what an Uber apple-picking enterprise might look like in the future.
Agriculturalists are also always learning and experimenting. Innovation doesn't have to happen in a lab or on a screen. We must not ignore fundamental science in areas such as agronomy and soil health. Lucerne in dryland hill country has been a great success story. Lucerne enhances soil health and moisture, fixes nitrogen and improves animal performance. It is grown in drought-prone areas such as Marlborough and the Maniototo, and has transformed some farmers' lives. If you think I am being overly dramatic, read Doug Avery's latest book.
In a similar vein, I know of groups of Canterbury farmers who are assessing what they can do differently with their land. They know there is a wall of synthetic meat and milk products on the way, how do they farm with fewer cows to produce their own plant-based protein products?
There are also companies forming in the Bay of Plenty determining how they can develop functional foods from boysenberries, blueberries and kiwi-berries, innovating their way to a better future.
Innovation in agriculture is where the future health and wealth of New Zealand lies. As a country we need to invest in how we can support this innovation and practice change. Taxation as an answer to agricultural challenges demonstrates a lack of imagination.