Food, farms a-changing


By Gord Stewart

A dairy farmer friend said to me: “Just go to a café, look at the menu and what people are eating, and you know things are changing.”

A sign of the changing dietary times [Photo: Sandy Stewart]

That was years ago. Change continues, and the pace of change is accelerating.

The Craft Meat Co of Dunedin, for example, has “100% plant-based” No-Meat Mince. Sunfed Meats offers Chicken Free Chicken Wild Meaty Chunks made from premium yellow pea protein (“High protein, high iron, high zinc”).

Air New Zealand has had the audacity to serve Impossible Burgers to its business class travelers.

Green Vie’s dairy-free delight is mozzarella flavoured and “free from dairy, gluten, soya, lactose and palm oil.” And there’s lots of ‘mylk’ available now – almond, coconut, oat, rice and soy included.

Kiwi Quinoa grows “high protein, Andean Superfood” quinoa on its Central Plateau farm, distributing it to stores throughout the country.

A new study by a global consultancy based on expert interviews, reported in the Guardian, predicts that by 2040 60 percent of the ‘meat’ we eat will either be grown in vats or replaced by plant-based products.

And if that’s not enough, I discovered recently that another dairy farmer friend with 50 years on the land under his belt is now following a vegan diet. Things are, indeed, changing.

The most significant of dietary changes is a move away from animal products for reasons of personal health and care for the environment.

Red meat has long been known to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer. Newer research implicates animal protein of all sorts.

Fortunately, we do not need animal protein for a healthy diet. In fact, a whole foods, plant-based diet is arguably healthier. Credible research and practical experience support this.

The impact of livestock farming on the environment ups the ante. A study published last year in the journal, Science, thoroughly documents the effects. It reviewed data based on nearly 39,000 farms in 119 countries covering 40 food products representing 90% of what we eat. Five environmental indicators were examined, including land use, water quality and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Grass-fed beef (obviously of interest to us here in New Zealand) is shown responsible for considerably higher environmental impacts than a range of plant-based alternatives. Similarly, the impact of producing milk was significant, with that of soy ‘milk’ (or mylk if you like) negligible by comparison.

How do we do things differently to protect a rapidly deteriorating planet and to meet changing consumer demand? We can start with a change in mindset – by no longer considering ourselves dairy farmers or beef farmers or sheep farmers, but rather ‘food producers’.

This opens doors – to converting to (or at least diversifying into) the likes of kiwifruit, avocado, berries, quinoa, hemp, almonds (under certain circumstances), bananas or possibly other tropical fruits. Climate, terrain and soil type will be among the factors farmers need to consider as they weigh their options, plus conversion costs and incentives, and investment returns.

An open and flexible attitude will be important. Dan and Jacqui Cottrell of Kiwi Quinoa were on to it when expanding beyond their traditional sheep operation. Reflecting on their efforts with quinoa and the complementary and crucial role they feel livestock plays in its production, Jacqui said, “Every move is an experiment. It’s hugely rewarding to try something new.”

Banana growing is a great fit with dairy farming

Hugh Rose, of Tallyman Bananas, would agree. We import about $140 million worth of bananas annually, and he contends we should be producing more here at home. He notes that interest in the crop is growing in Northland, Bay of Plenty and down to Gisborne. “It’s a great complement to dairying,” says Rose. “Dairy effluent is high in nitrogen and phosphate, exactly what bananas love.”

NZ Herald business columnist, Brian Fallow, supports this transition, saying, “A more diversified pattern of land use would make for a more resilient, shock-resistant economy.” It will make for more resilient and shock-resistant individual farmers, too. And a healthier planet. Certainly a win all around.

Steven Carden, chief executive of Pāmu Farms of New Zealand (formerly Landcorp) summarises things nicely, saying we need to move on from traditional farming practices to “a new, yet to be fully defined farming future.”

Carden envisions a future for Pāmu that should be embraced industry wide: One, he says, “with more crops and trees in our soil and fewer hooves on it.”

*Gord Stewart is a sustainability consultant with a background in environmental management and economics

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