Farm sustainability demands and ideas coming, ready or not

Rabobank forum says markets like good, clean farming

Agribusiness
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Environmental regulators are forcing change, but, but the marketplace will really make farmers seek sustainability

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Good environmental management and animal welfare credentials are much more than just good farming ideas or fluffy feel-good themes - they will be market basics for farmers in the next decade.

The priorities producers give to issues such as cutting livestock methane emissions, promoting soil carbon, improving water quality and farm ecosystem biodiversity will dictate future commodity prices and Australia's agricultural credibility with consumers.

Although governments worldwide are tightening farm sustainability expectations, even in Donald Trump's environmentally sceptical USA, industry experts say consumer demands and new farm technology will be what dramatically influence how most farmers change.

In New Zealand, where multiple new regulations are now being pushed by a government set on achieving sustainable farming leadership, speakers at a sustainability forum said commerce would "do the heavy lifting", fostering initiatives such as carbon friendly farming, and soil and waterway remediation.

In fact, already big name meat businesses such as US processing giant Cargill, Denmark's Danish Crown, and Canada's Maple Leaf Foods were competing to win consumer recognition by promising to cut their carbon footprints.

There's a competitive dynamic already happening - Justin Sherrard, Rabobank

"In the past year both Danish Crown and Maple Leaf Foods have said they want to be the world's most sustainable animal protein companies," Rabobank's animal protein strategist, Justin Sherrard told the audience of NZ and Australian farmers and agribusiness leaders.

"Maple Leaf plants are already carbon neutral and Cargill wants to cut carbon emissions 30 per cent across its supply chain, from farm to consumer, by 2030."

Justin Sherrard

Justin Sherrard

"There's a competitive dynamic already happening - not necessarily at the same pace everywhere, but it is happening.

"These companies see it as important."

Mr Sherrard, based in the Netherlands, said consumers were also willing to pay premiums for sustainably farmed products.

In Europe, where most supermarket eggs were already from cage-free farms, the market had stepped up to a new level with eggs laid by hens whose diets were largely live insects.

The marketing rationale behind "Dinosaur eggs" focused on the fact chooks had evolved eating grubs and other critters, and scratching the ground to seek them out.

If today's farmed hens were busy pecking and scratching at bugs, they were also less likely to peck at each other.

"These eggs are popular because the product connects with shoppers' values - they feel good about why they're buying," Mr Sherrard said.

In Britain e-commerce allowed consumers to order a fortnightly delivery from a "happy meat patty" company which guaranteed meat from farms where greenhouse emissions were being reduced and the product was premium quality.

Rabobank sustainability forum leader, Tim Hunt, with panelists Lachlan Monsbourgh and Blake Holgate.

Rabobank sustainability forum leader, Tim Hunt, with panelists Lachlan Monsbourgh and Blake Holgate.

Traceability back to the animal's origins added trustworthiness to the company's credentials, and buyers were subsequently happy to pay more for their happy patties.

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Similarly, Rabobank's Australian and NZ sustainable business development manager, Lachlan Monsbourgh, pointed to Japan where consumers willingly paid up to eight times more than conventional prices for specific Filipino banana lines grown by Italian fruit giant, Unifrutti.

Concerned about the cost of repeated coastal cyclone damage, the company had established new cooler climate plantations inland in rainforest areas where communities were traditionally poor and frequented by communist militia groups.

To win local support Unifrutti invested in education, health and employment projects and the highest levels of agricultural sustainability for rainforest environments.

This subsequently became a big selling point with Japanese shoppers.

Technology helps

Mr Monsbourgh said consumer sustainability expectations were now supported by a raft of emerging technology making it possible for farmers to actively achieve environmental benchmarks.

Machinery giant New Holland's new 135 kilowatt biomethane tractor, on show at Germany's Agritechnica exhibition this year, meant pig and dairy producers would soon harvest their own effluent methane to power farm tractors, rather than let emissions evaporate into the atmosphere.

New Holland's methane-fuelled tractor at Agritechnica.

New Holland's methane-fuelled tractor at Agritechnica.

Satellites soon to be launched by Airbus would monitor pasture leaf mass and chlorophyll levels four times daily, providing farmers with exact details about carbon sequestration and dry matter volumes, enabling them to make real time decisions on carbon management in their paddocks.

"Recently technology has allowed tractors, balers or grain harvesters to effectively talk to each other and work more efficiently, but the next decade will see technology like this playing a clear role in meeting carbon goals on farms," he said.

Feeding options

Meanwhile, complementing livestock diets with feed supplements such as linseed and omega 3 fatty acid products was reducing cattle methane output by about 20pc, according to Rabobank animal proteins and sustainability analyst, Blake Holgate.

Ruminant products to combat carbon were already available and would become more mainstream, especially as industries such as the US dairy sector and housed livestock in Europe were forced to meet tighter emission regulation targets.

In California, where 60pc of methane comes from dairies or other livestock, the state is on track to cut total emissions 40pc (on 2013 levels) by 2030.

The Netherlands is cutting all greenhouse gases 33pc by 2030, Germany wants a 34pc cut in agricultural emissions, Ireland plans to be carbon neutral by 2050, and NZ is also aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050 and a 10pc emission reduction goal by 2030 climbing to 26pc by 2050.

Rabobank food and agribusiness research and advisory head, Tim Hunt, said Britain's National Farmers Union intended to challenge NZ's strategy in the sustainable agriculture race.

NFU president, Minette Batters, said competitors such as NZ and Ireland had laid down the gauntlet to UK agricultural exporters and she believed Britain must target zero emissions by 2040.

"She says if British targets aren't higher, NZ will get the jump on UK farmers' markets at home and overseas," Mr Hunt said.

"It won't be easy, but demand created by new regulatory requirements and commercial pressures will also create a huge rise in newly commercialised technology to help producers reach these goals."

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The story Farm sustainability demands and ideas coming, ready or not first appeared on Farm Online.

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