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By Professor Ray Geor
There’s a strong voice across New Zealand for clean waterways and farmers and environmentalists agree that something needs to be done.
It’s a wicked problem, diverse, challenging and not easy or quick to solve. This brings frustration, finger-pointing, overly simplistic arguments and regrettably each side resorts to painting the other as the villain. Clean rivers and a thriving agriculture industry are not mutually exclusive. Working for both is the hardest approach, but it is the right one.
All the farmers I know, big and small, talk about being guardians of the land and they take care to look after it both for productivity today and for future generations. Sure, they have businesses to run but they know their businesses would fail if they didn’t look after the land and water. On the other hand, I talk to people who have deep concerns for the state of our waterways and the environment, and a similar feeling of guardianship for future generations shines through.
So how do we bridge the divide and achieve outcomes that work for both the environment and agriculture? We have developed a culture of “us” and “them” that is helping nobody and only serving to divide us further. Put simply we must work together towards a shared objective, where a vibrant agricultural industry lives in harmony with optimal health of the environment.
Sustainable management of our environment is the shared objective and we are driving toward it through science and collaboration. Achieving and sustaining a ‘healthy ecosystem’ requires policy and practice that’s informed by research. The stronger our research is, the more informed the regulation becomes, and the better off we all are.
But research takes investment, both in research dollars and in relationships. The government and industry organisations have invested in research to better understand what’s happening with nutrients on farms and in our streams and rivers. At Massey, we work with many partners including councils, industry groups, companies and other research providers to better understand and inform practices that will see clean rivers alongside thriving agriculture.
Our work at Massey has two aspects; to conduct research with our partners to advance knowledge and to produce world-ready graduates committed to making a better world. We work at the intersection of human, animal and ecosystem health to understand and optimise the growth of plants and animals for food, fibre and other products and to sustain and enhance our resources and people's lives.
We are leading research on the health of sensitive river catchments to better understand what happens to nitrogen and phosphorous in our soils alongside waterways. Early results suggest that not all farms are equal in transporting nutrients to waterways. These findings may have massive implications on the way we farm the land and achieve water quality outcomes.
In another project, we are researching the ways the bioactives in the herb, plantain work to decrease nitrogen leaching. The work shows there are substantial decreases in nitrate leaching while milk production is maintained. Already, more farmers are including plantain cultivars in their pasture.
Achieving the right balance between production and sustainability is the central focus for research on Massey’s dairy farms. On our Dairy One farm, we milk once a day, have riparian strips and operate a cut and carry feed system. Our research shows the herd is healthy and productive, whilst nitrogen is not entering the nearby river. A state-of-the-art effluent system on this farm produces potable water from waste.
The innovations we bring to the primary industries come from our trans-disciplinary approach across the food value chain. We’re judged on this internationally and of the hundreds of universities in the world, Massey ranks 27th in the Quacquarelli Symonds’ world university subject rankings in agriculture.
However, the true test of our value will be the solutions that we develop in collaboration with others to achieve an optimal balance between agricultural productivity and environmental health.
Professor Ray Geor is the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Sciences at Massey University.
Created: 17/10/2017 | Last updated: 17/10/2017
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