New Zealand is a country that prides itself on being clean and green, and images of its lush open landscapes are used to help sell its meat around the world. While for many consumers the global financial crisis diverted attention away from environmental concerns, this has not deterred New Zealand from continuing its work in this area.
Indeed, there has actually been "an acceleration of efforts to produce food efficiently while minimising the impact on the environment" in recent years, says Ben O’Brien, general manager, market access, Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ).
Projects on water usage and pasture and soil management are two ways in which the country’s farmers are being helped to improve their environmental credentials. Land and Environment Planning toolkits (LEPs) are one example. Developed by B+LNZ, the kits help farmers to sustainably manage their land, and include advice on issues such as keeping stock out of water, erosion and sediment management, as well as nutrient management.
"The LEPs encourage a whole farm approach to management, promoting a more detailed understanding of the land and water resource, the impacts of managing livestock on that resource and how to eliminate or mitigate those impacts," says O’Brien. "Through the LEP process many farmers have been able to improve their returns while improving their stewardship of their farming environment."
Environmentally, the sheep and beef sector has many advantages over other land uses. In general, sheep and beef farming in New Zealand is relatively extensive and is not reliant on a high level of inputs, such as fertiliser or agrichemicals. "Producers understand they need to fit their enterprise to the land resource available and, in most cases, this means having a range of activities on the farm and careful management of pasture and soils," adds O’Brien.
Water has also been a focus for farmers in New Zealand. In 2011, the Land and Water Forum was set up to bring together parties traditionally in opposition, including businesses, environmental groups and Maori representatives, to thrash out access to fresh water. "Improving prices had accelerated the rate of irrigation, and there was a need to look at the social contract between water users and the community," says O’Brien.
Representatives from the agricultural sector, power generation, environmental NGOs, regional councils and iwi, the largest of the Maori social units, joined the forum to plan a future for fresh water in New Zealand, says O’Brien. As a result the government has embarked on a number of fresh water reforms to act on the recommendations from the forum.
Another pillar in the environmental strategy of the farming sector is an awards scheme, which celebrates and encourages excellence in environmental stewardship. This is done through the Farm Environment Trust, an organisation that operates an annual regional awards scheme, which recognises excellence in farm environmental management. Regional winners are brought together in a final national showcase where a supreme winner is announced.
Entries for 2014 are currently being considered, but the supreme winners last year were brother and sister team Shayne and Charmaine O’Shea, who scooped the award, partly down to their "excellent effluent management system, which utilises a three pond system, with water from the third pond recycled for cleaning the feed pad", judges said.
"Along with the award comes increased recognition within the farming community and then, of course, there are the prizes that include an opportunity to travel and learn from farmers and organisations in other countries," says O’Brien.
Careful stewardship of the environment has always been at the forefront of sheep and beef farmers’ minds, O’Brien adds. "In most cases they operate family farms that have been passed down the generations and, for each generation, the objective has been to pass it on in better shape than when you got it. As we learn more about the unique environment in which we live and work, that new knowledge is put to work to improve farm management systems, to increase profitability and develop a more sustainable resource."