NZ agriculture needs to become more sustainable

Sir Charles Godfray, Oxford Martin School
Sir Charles Godfray

New Zealand agriculture needs to become more sustainable to capitalise on the clean, green, unspoiled image the country has overseas.

That’s the view of Sir Charles Godfray, director of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University in the UK, a world-leading centre of research into addressing global challenges.

Sir Charles recently visited New Zealand to speak at a Bio-Protection Research Centre symposium, and give a public lecture on gene-drive technologies to control insects that transmit disease.

Discussing food security he said, “By the middle of the century there will be about 10 billion people. Demand for food will increase both because of the growth in population and because an increasing number of people will be richer and demanding better-quality diets – including more meat and dairy.

“But calorie for calorie, food from animals requires more resources to produce than food from plants, and it would be impossible to satisfy the demands of 10 billion people if they all had the diets we enjoy in the rich world. Something would have to give.”

Added to that there are pressure on food supply: climate change was already leading to more extreme effects such as droughts and floods, and there was increasing pressure on water resources.

Given these challenges, there were two possible futures for the livestock sector, Sir Charles said.

“One sees the demand for meat and dairy going up unchecked and putting so much pressure on the environment that it undermines our capacity to produce food in the future.”

The other possible future was that people individually ate less meat and dairy, but demanded premium-quality products: safe and nutritious, and produced under the highest environmental and animal welfare standards.

“It is natural that talk of eating less meat and dairy is concerning in a country where so many livelihoods depend on livestock,” Sir Charles said. “My mother grew up on a dairy farm near Kaikoura so I’m particularly conscious of this.  But ignoring the challenges ahead risks the future of the industry.

“The sophistication of New Zealand’s farmers and agricultural and environmental researchers, plus the county’s wonderful green image, puts the country in a much better position to address the future than most of its competitors.

“But sustainable diets and sustainable production must be given much higher priority”.

The Bio-Protection Research Centre is a Centre of Research Excellence funded by the New Zealand Government. It was established in 2003 to drive innovation in sustainable approaches to pest, pathogen and weed control. The Centre has six partner institutes: AgResearch, Lincoln University, Massey University, Plant & Food Research, Scion, and the University of Canterbury, with members throughout New Zealand.

Godfray, whose work spans ecology, evolution and epidemiology, was recently appointed the Director of the Oxford Martin School. Through his own work on the health, environmental and economic consequences of food policies, Sir Charles has had a major impact on future thinking about global food security.

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