The ignorance and confusion on show about what is efficiency and what is intensification in the sheep/beef and dairying sector is frightening.

Truly efficient farmers risk being suffocated by the ill-informed enforcing poorly considered regulation. Regulation resulting from modelling. Thinking that ignores efficiency and employs a weak definition of what constitutes intensification.

If we get more kilometres on a litre of petrol that is efficient and we collectively welcome it. If we get more milk, or meat per hectare that is intensification and efficiency is ignored. The definition provided to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment by Motu in its Land Use and Farming Intensity report of November 2013 is as follows;

“We define farming intensity as production per hectare (kg milksolids per hectare for dairy farms, kg meat and/or fibre per hectare for sheep/beef farms).”

These are seriously deficient intensification measures for both beef, sheep and dairy. They studiously ignore efficiency gains available due to improvements in management, animal efficiency and emerging technology, for example. It is difficult to define intensification and it is a conundrum we all face when modelling farm systems but let us try to get it right.

Ignoring efficiency is not acceptable. It needs serious thought to pursue robust definitions for both farming and the environment, these two interests are inextricably entwined. This seemingly is not happening where it matters the most.

Take for example the Interim Climate Change Committee (ICCC) Rural Workshop presentation of February 2019. The word efficiency is mentioned in the text eight times in 64 powerpoint slides and not defined at all, not even hinted at. The word intensive was mentioned four times in the text and not defined and again not even hinted at.

So how can we suggest farmers move to less-intensive systems when we do not have a definition provided and it appears neither does the ICCC, otherwise surely it would have used it? The Motu report provides a definition that is so superficial it is dangerous. The risk is efficient farmers will get taxed more, on the basis of a flawed and deficient understanding of basic production principles.

There is no room in the burgeoning primary sector regulatory industry in New Zealand for efficiency, innovation, and technology improvements. Dare to produce more from less and you risk getting a punitive tax levied on you or regulated out of business. Why? Because the regulatory system is not good at listening. It is instead creating a regulatory/technology time warp by not showing any interest in how efficiency may contribute to better environmental outcomes. One size does not fit all, the approach being taken is incredibly lazy, destructive, and dismissive.

The primary sector is not blame-free here. It grapples with the same definition issues but needs to provide well-considered direction and balanced dialogue for policymakers, think tanks and politicians, on farm system efficiency. The risk otherwise is having to counter definitions around critical farming measures driven by the ill-informed, the cynical and downright hostile NGO and activist interests. And that all occurs before we can focus on sane discussion of truly helpful ideas and advances in farming methods.

For my money producing more from less seems like a pretty good deal. The fewer resources required to make a kilogram of milksolids or red meat may put a farm over some almost arbitrary regulated limit, but it clearly is not wrong. It is really an environmental win. Unless you want the tax to fund your future income?

  • Ray Macleod is an agricultural economist for Landward Management, Dunedin.