poultry consumption per year

Leave now, brown cow?

By Nicola Dennis

Right now, it seems that every self-proclaimed “futurist” in the country is predicting that consumers are going to dramatically reduce meat intake in favour of plant-based diets of some kind. If this is true, then I believe this presents a lot of opportunities for farmers (i.e. landowners will always have the last laugh). Before we get to that, I feel compelled to poke a stick at the futurists and their claims.

Ever since I started school in the 1990’s, I have been subjected to an ever-adapting anti-chicken farming campaign. Well respected people touted that chicken farming is cruel, that uncooked chicken meat is dangerous, that chicken meat is unhealthy and full of hormones, that chicken farms pollute the environment, etc, etc. These claims were so accepted, that they were almost part of the school curriculum. Did all this “negative energy” decreased my poultry consumption?

How much we (guiltily) love chicken. Data sourced from OECD.org website.

No, and it didn’t affect many other people either. The average kiwi has doubled their consumption of chicken since I started school. Chicken is cheap. Chicken is delicious. When it comes to opening our wallets those two points are almost all that we, as consumers, care about.

Therefore, I don’t predict a sudden slump in meat consumption based on some media hype, but I am happy to be wrong. Why? Because livestock farming is hard on land and beast. There is always going to be a grain of truth to that. And livestock farming is also very hard on humans too!

So, if (and it’s a big if) the money were equal, who wouldn’t switch to farming plants. Plants don’t run out open gates, they don’t kick, they don’t need moved, they don’t scream for food in the middle of a hailstorm and they don’t elicit expensive vet bills late at night on a public holiday. In fact, I think it is even possible to go on holiday without having to pen a memoir of instructions about paddock rotations, electric fences and water troughs.

If there are people out there willing to pay over $40/kg for “meat-free meat”, then why wouldn’t we want a piece of the action? And if pandering to vegans is not your thing, there are many more plants to consider than peas and soy beans. Hemp crops are returning good gains in Canterbury. Commercial cannabis crops are an emerging green rush overseas and look set to hit our shores sometime soon. Judging by how antsy some of the locals get about small planes flying overhead, both crops should do very well in coastal Otago. Since little else would volunteer to grow here, that bodes well for the rest of the country.

If you are looking to plant something a bit more conservative. Bananas have been grown in Northland for premium prices for years and they are spreading further down the east coast of the north island. The average kiwi eats 88kg of bananas per year. It seems we love bananas even more than we love chicken.

It is going to take a lot of global warming before we can grow bananas down in Dunedin and don’t like the idea of watching hectares of hash roll into the sea on our landslide prone land. So, I think my escape from the winter feed-out regime might have to come in the form of a tree crop.

Right now, I have my hopes riding on pine nuts. Driving around, I am now noticing all the fascinating places that a wild pine tree will attempt to grow. My family would desperately like a reprieve from the pine spotting game and for me to stop cooking pine cones in our kitchen.

If pine nuts don’t pan out for us, then the boom of the mānuka honey industry now means that specifically bred mānuka plantations are now a thing.

Which brings us nicely back to genetics. Plant breeding is a bit more complex than animal breeding and your local geneticist is going to have to get her head around self-incompatibility systems and all the extra chromosome copies that plants have. Plants are also promiscuous things, so it can be difficult to control matings. On the other hand, plant cloning is relatively easy. If you have a plant you quite like, well, you are free to hack a piece off and use it to grow more, identical plants (actual process is probably more complicated than this, I still have a lot of homework to do in this area).

This concludes my ramblings about the future. While others see doom and gloom for NZ farmers. I am hoping for business as usual for food production and breeding work- perhaps with a little more opportunity for holidays!