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New technologies in arable farming.

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Executive Summary

Agriculture’s importance in the world is growing. In 1988 New Zealand agriculture was infamously described by David Lange, the then leader of the Labour party as “a sunset industry”. He believed New Zealand’s reliance on agriculture was diminishing and the country should now be focusing on manufacturing and tourism. 25 years on agriculture is as important to New Zealand’s economy as ever. Today agriculture is seen as an industry of the future with the outlook for farming never as bright.

Every day there are more people on our planet than the day before. Demographers tell us that the planet is gaining around 160,000 extra people every day. With global starvation already higher than it has ever been, especially in the developing world, pressure on agriculture to lift production and fill this food shortage will continue to increase.

Where will this additional food come from?

There will be small gains made from better food distribution, improving transport networks and by minimising the enormous wastage from paddock to plate but the greatest increases in available food must come from increasing production on farm. Farmers’ ability to keep lifting yields at the same rate using conventional farming methods is diminishing, so any further gains will involve the capacity to adapt and adopt new technologies. These new technologies, whether they are precision agriculture, genetically modifying crops or something else entirely, will certainly play a part in achieving the additional production that is needed.

New Zealand is a country that can benefit from this increased global demand for food. With an economy that is more reliant on agricultural production than most, increasing agricultural exports would have direct benefits to the wealth of our country. New Zealand has many natural advantages, from its fertile soils and temperate climate, to its established production systems and recognised quality assurance programs, creating huge opportunities for agriculture throughout the country. As an already high yield producer, New Zealand’s gains will come from looking at fresh ways to improve production and adopting new technologies rather than any modest variations to our existing farming systems.

Two of these technologies, Genetic Modification (GM) of crops and Precision Agriculture are both likely to play a big part in New Zealand’s agricultural future.

Due to rapid advances in equipment, software and expertise, the Precision Agriculture industry will continue to progress and evolve helped by a greater uptake from farmers.  The ever increasing environmental pressure now on farming means the ability to accurately apply, record and map any inputs will become more important than ever. The real benefits of precision agriculture are still ahead of us.

While the advantages of precision agriculture are generally understood and accepted, the benefits of the genetic modification of crops are less so. Critics of GM food products insist that they are unsafe, untested, unregulated and unnecessary. But the facts are starting to show otherwise. We are starting to consistently see many benefits including new varieties of crops like wheat or maize with resistance to different pests and diseases.

This in turn is leading to lower pesticide use and higher yields. It is often quoted that in North America there has been over two trillion servings of food that contain GM ingredients without any cases of documented harm. Is this enough? How long will it take before the science is seen to be proven?

Currently New Zealand is practically free of any Genetic Modification due to the very strict regulations around release. But for GM to be a useful tool for the future, research has to start now. This research is critical to New Zealand’s future.

Globally public attitudes towards GM may be softening but the New Zealand consumer still might not be quite ready for GM technology. New Zealand farmers will be commercially growing genetically modified plants one day, but not yet. While there is growing interest from producers and consumers, there still needs to be more information on the benefits and risks so the purchaser is able to make an informed decision.

Education is the key, moving people away from the extremes to more middle ground. There is also a need to respect the views of people who take a contrary view and respect people’s right to choose.

But Genetic Modification is a powerful tool if used well which may bring many benefits to future generations. Can New Zealand agriculture afford to turn its back on this?

At the very least this is a debate worth having.

New Technologies in Arable Farming – Michael tayler