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Stepping up sustainability

Moller Campbell A alt banner

Tuesday 14 May 2013 4:10pm

When the food miles debate erupted in 2007, it took soundly researched data from the Agriculture Research Group on Sustainability (ARGOS) to debunk a myth that was threatening to derail New Zealand’s food export industry.

ARGOS is a long-term joint venture among the University of Otago, the Agribusiness Group and Lincoln University, designed to compare the practice and performance of more than 100 organic, conventional and integrated management farms and orchards. The latter subscribe to market accreditation schemes designed to assure consumers’ food has been grown in an ethical and environmentally friendly way.

Data gathered by the ARGOS coalition partners since 2003 provided ready evidence for an alternative way of understanding the energy cost of food systems and to critique the food miles concept.

Professor Hugh Campbell, senior researcher at Otago’s Centre for Sustainability: Agriculture, Food, Energy, Environment (CSAFE), which oversees the University’s involvement in ARGOS, describes it as “the big home run”. CSAFE ecologist Professor Henrik Moller says the Europeans’ bumper sticker approach claimed that buying local would save the energy needed to transport food from New Zealand.

“ARGOS’s data showed that you could do that and still be much more efficient because the actual energy costs of transport were more than offset by the higher efficiency of New Zealand farming.”

Campbell says the public debate then shifted rapidly from food miles to the entire energy footprint of food as a total product, putting particular emphasis on the intensity of farming systems themselves.

“What ARGOS did was create such dense and complex sets of data about whole farming systems that you could actually start to talk credibly about things like energy and a whole package of other sustainability indicators.”

The extensive data allowed them to ask whether organic, integrated management or conventional farming systems could deliver the greatest sustainability to New Zealand.

“Our answer is that, actually, they all deliver something valuable,” says Moller. “It is important that we get past the idea that organics will be a silver bullet, although it has some incredibly valuable things. There are some wonderful things about integrated management farms, too, and we find that there are many conventional or non-accredited farmers that are doing brilliant things.

“We need to replace this idea that there is one way to sustainability by saying there are multiple pathways and we should be celebrating good farming, irrespective of the way you choose to get there.”

Campbell says that one of the pivotal questions that was front and centre at the start of the ARGOS project was whether the market can deliver sustainability outcomes through mechanisms such as accreditation schemes, new “eco-labels”, changing consumer preferences and supermarket-driven schemes.

“ARGOS showed that market accreditation and green-tick labelling mechanisms were delivering some sustainability gains – they just weren’t enough by themselves to future-proof New Zealand’s farming and agricultural market access.”

Moller goes further. “Instead of just relying on market mechanisms for delivering sustainability, we have to start thinking about adding increased regulation and, even, subsidisation where farmers provide environmental benefits for all New Zealanders. An urgent national conversation is needed to decide how much do we use the public purse to pay private landowners to provide environmental care?”

While acknowledging that market accreditation can’t deliver sustainability on its own, both Campbell and Moller suggest that we can significantly improve the effectiveness of accreditation schemes.

To that end they are using the next phase of the ARGOS research to develop the New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard, a web application containing a range of sustainability performance indicators farmers can tap into to track their performance and benchmark it against their own and other sectors. It also includes decision support tools to help farming families improve their sustainability performance.

In addition, it will be used for environmental reporting to regional councils and government, and international foodmarket chains and consumers will be able to check key performance indicators around sustainability.

The Dashboard research team is creating a tool enabling multiple parties spread throughout the world food chains – “from gate to plate” – to communicate and build trust in each other, and in the safety and sustainability credentials of New Zealand produce, says Campbell.

“It’s not a case of having a scientific expert at one end of the pipe and the farmer recipient gratefully waiting at the other end for the information to pop out. We are trying to create a site where industry expertise and applied farming expertise can be in a creative dialogue with researchers and more fundamental 
science activities.”