Why do we manage land the way we do? Why does New Zealand focus on ever-more gross production over a great scale of sameness? Why do we talk of “feeding the world” when we can at best feed 40 million or so? Why do some defend the consequences of pollution of streams? Why do we think we can keep on managing land this way, and then add some token riparian fences as some panacea solution – which it patently is not?
Enough with all the mechanical in-the-box thinking. It is leading us in a vicious treadmill downwards. This is not a time for defending some cherished ‘tradition’ of land use; it is a time to start thinking conceptually and strategically. How can we create a better landscape that provides multiple benefits for all, and puts us in the best position for an inevitably uncertain future, whether climatic, financial or social?
Because the answer to that question is definitely not by seeing land the way we currently do, or thinking in a gross production space, or treating ‘the environment’ as something outside the narrow concept of land ‘industry’. There is so much potential in our regions – if we could only think outside the boxes we build in our own minds.
We really should not be bothered anymore with the repeated clichés and mantras that are pulling us down; “we need to feed the world”; “you can’t be green if you’re in the red”; only greenies plant trees; get big or get out; there’s nothing wrong with our streams. All nonsense.
This dominant mantra of production for a colonial parent is our history. And then it all changed, and we didn’t adapt with that change. When Britain joined Europe in 1973, we didn’t stop to think what that meant because all the momentum of ‘education’, research and policy was geared to that mythology – Britain’s farm. We didn’t adapt; we were rigid. We kept thinking the same way and heading in the same direction; only faster, more, more. The rodent runs on the wheel …. and remains in one place …. eating the land and the community in a desperate attempt to never have to think about something different.
The myth of production. Getting more yield out of the land. Putting more in to get more out, far beyond optimum profit or risk. Damaging the very land, our biodiversity, our stream systems, our energy efficiency, our carbon balance, the very story that provides our price premiums. Damaging the free ecosystem services that create a better financial return – stock water quality, water retention, flood mitigation, animal health, soil biology.
And then the inevitable tragedy plays out. We watch as the dominant buyers say thanks very much, we’ll now drop the price by your cost-efficiency. The price reduction then kicks the narrow technocratic myopia into gear – led often by the so-called leaders within policy, education and research. They didn’t pause to think because they are too busy measuring yield, and that is what they do.
Here is a new grass bred on irrigated fertile Templeton silt loans, so it’ll be great for drought prone hill country; we’ll build the Motonui Urea plant; mechanise the land more; industrialise more; aggregate ownership to get economies of scale. Plant uneconomic grass on the perfect site for a Grand Cru vineyard. Be forced to employ less people, and make them migrants on lower wages. Spend less locally. Push ever more costs onto the downstream community (“they ought to pay us for the right to swim really”), or into our own future by degrading the capacities of the land into the machine – a hydroponic factory of nutrients and water. Who needs soil anyway? Look forward to Monsanto’s next GM saviour wonder plant.
Build a dam and irrigate.
The traditionalists in love with a colonial myth revel in it, particularly the big owners who swallow the small.
And the corporates are in heaven. They get to finance the deals. They get more land, more scale. They get to sell the extra inputs to the farm. They live in the world where buying cheap commodities for processed food is their prime concern, quality being entirely secondary to price. They produce the bland and try to dominate those that produce quality.
None of this is inevitable. We can think our way out. We can start having conversations about alternatives.
The tradition of gross production is patently not the best choice for our land; every square metre in grass or crop or radiata pine isn’t the ideal. Far more important is the capacity to hold or increase price by emphasising a qualitative point of difference – the adjectives that make a consumer pay – ‘safe’, ‘quality’, ‘Hawke’s Bay’; unique produce with a story of a healthy environment and community.
Before the agronomists brainwash the minds of our future land users, the more strategic thinkers should emphasise the importance of never producing a mere noun – say lamb – without a set of adjectives to go with it – Hawke’s Bay, grass-fed, free-range, finished on the mixed herbal pastures and browse of the eastern coast, tasty, delicious … lamb. We should not be aiming for some cheap thing to put into a boil-in-the-bag microwave meal end of the market. Leave that to the GMO producers and the Third World.
Position over production, every time. Else we will continue to spiral down. This is strategy, not technofix laid upon technofix laid upon the bankers’ dream of the industrial scale dam to produce yet more adjective-less dross – whose price will certainly fall, perpetuating the treadmill.
We need to stop being the rodent on the technology treadmill before the bearings break. The first step is to focus on diverse value over homogenous volume.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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