Food scarcity and arid land


In my last blog post I wrote about the importance of agriculture to our economy. Then I started hearing stories that farm sales were down, especially dairy. Apparently of over 4,000 farms on the market, only around 200 sold last month.

Good news for some of the farmers who want out, because there are foreign investors who want to buy them. One company wants to spend $1.5 Billion dollars buying NZ farms. You would have to wonder if we can’t make a good living out of farming how can other countries do it? If we do sell them, where will the earnings from those farms go? Not into our pockets I would suggest.

China has a problem. They have a large dry land mass and not enough water to grow the crops they need and a huge and growing population. What are they doing about it? They and other countries such as Middle East are buying good arable land wherever they can get it for a good price. For example China is buying farming land in Mozambique, Angola, Malawi, Nigeria and even Zimbabwe. It’s not all bad, they are teaching local farmers better techniques in animal husbandry, improving crop yields etc.

What are the motives of China and Arabic countries in buying this land? They need the food. In Ethiopia, one of the worlds poorest countries, not only are they selling land to foreign countries, they are giving them tax holidays for a number of years, but what is of greater concern is the expectation that most, if not all of the crops will be going back to countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

I ask myself therefore, again, why can’t we produce high yield crops on our fertile soils and sell it to the countries that need it. Once those countries have bought our land, we won’t be getting it back and I wouldn’t expect us to gain much in GDP from the crops they grow.

As I said in my last blog, the ‘good old days’ were when we were largely an agrarian economy, we had plenty and we also had plenty to export. Now we have fantastic biotechnology and the ability to increase yields, quality and in many cases without using GM technologies.

I would hate to look into our future and see a country that can’t feed itself, that grows crops on farms owned by other countries, go straight offshore to feed them with minimal economic benefit to us. I would welcome someone to explain the logic of this.

We have expertise, maybe we should be assisting some of those countries who are unable to maximise the return on their land, help them thrive and clip the ticket. That would be a win win. While we do that, we also continue to research and improve product, the grasses and other food sources for animal feed etc. We do have some successes such as Fonterra, Livestock Improvements and many other thriving areas of research and results in biotechnology. We should stick with what we are good at and rather than give our farms to the Chinese, Arabs and others who want them, let the Government buy them. They could be run by unemployed people, who would get training on the job and perhaps even interest free loans to purchase some of those plots and use the skills they have obtained to build themselves a healthy asset and income, while increaseing our balance of payments. Is that silly? What’s wrong with my thinking?

In February this year there were around 168,000 people unemployed. Lets put them to work on those farms, teach them a trade, help them make something of themselves and help them earn the money to buy there way in with low interest loans and subsidies. What could we produce with 168,000 people working instead of paying them to do nothing. The single person benefit is around $160. That works out to a wasted loss of around $26,880,000 per annum. I say lets buy those farms and keep them in New Zealand hands.

This Video from TVNZ gives an example of what is happening.

I’ve been thinking


Do what you do well, is advice that is often given. Get back to basics. So let’s think about this for a moment from a New Zealand perspective. At the moment our economy, like many economies is looking grim. We are borrowing lots of money to stay afloat. We look to electronics, bioengineering and other things that we are good at, but aside from a few exceptions we don’t seem to capitalise on it. We are great with ideas, but not so good at doing something about it.

We have some success stories sure, wine does ok, lamb was doing ok until they invented food miles and we are pretty successful at controlling segments of milk and fruit, particularly apples and kiwifruit. The legacy of people like Angus Tait (who I had the privilege of working for 7 years) continues, but without his innovative attitude. We have some success stories, but they are really far and few between.

Many years ago, when we all took it for granted, we were an agrarian economy and very successful at it. We’ve been successful food exporters, right back to when the Dunedin, the world’s first refrigerated ship left New Zealand full of frozen meat carcasses, back in 1882.

New Zealand fed many parts of the world for over a hundred years and life was good. Live sheep have been exported for over 100 years, although a number of incidents where thousands of sheep died have had a negative impact on this. My biggest argument, besides the inhumanity of keeping live animals penned up for so long, was that much of the stock was exported for breeding purposes, which of course reduced the demand for our own product.

But I digress. In today’s economy, we seem to have turned our backs on some opportunities, such as creating large call centres to look after communications needs of other English-speaking countries in other time zones, a market that South Africa has made a huge industry out of. We aren’t doing enough in areas such as science and medicine, possibly because the people with the smarts go offshore.

So lets look at what problems the world is going to face in the near future, in fact many parts of the world are facing right now, food! Scarce water resources, growing populations and growing tracts of land that are becoming so dry and depleted that nothing will grow on them. Then of course we also have oceanic dead zones, which are killing fish and other sea life.

Is this something we could look at with a different De Bono Hat on? Oceanic Dead Zones thrive through a combination of fertilisers and nutrients that leach into rivers and down to the sea, causing large algae blooms. These compound as the phytoplankton absorbs available oxygen and pretty much kills everything off.

Could this be another opportunity? When I need some extra energy before a run, I swallow a pile of Spirulina. Spirulina is actually algae. Of course the algal blooms often contain toxins, but there are many algae that can be used as a food source. Perhaps we could turn a bad situation into a good one.

In New Zealand, since we signed the Kyoto protocol, it has become relatively economic to grow forests (which while gobbling up Carbon Dioxide also use up a lot of water). We have lots of land, a good climate for agriculture and a need to find new sources of income. In fact I have heard that NZ can no longer feed its population without importing food. So why don’t we start looking at ways of growing bulk food?

If we want to do the right thing, we could look at product that has low cost to grow, that we can export for a profit and help countries that have problems at the same time. More than 1 billion people (1 in 6) suffer from food deprivation.

Food Science is something we are very good at. Most universities have food science and biotechnology majors and there is even a Food Science Institute. Many people have a problem with GE Food. I don’t personally know enough about it, but one way or another we either have to put production into overdrive or accept that hundreds of millions of people will die soon through malnutrition and starvation.We have a food crisis now. Grain is scarce and with oil running out a lot of people are now growing grain to fuel cars, creating even less food source.

Whilst human population growth is slowing, there were still 74 million new mouths to feed last year. A large chunk of these are in countries where soils are eroding, water tables falling and wells going dry.

Water politics is becoming a new issue and it could be that future wars are fought between countries that share water sources. This is especially likely where low lands are reliant on water coming from highlands. Think Europe, where many of our recent wars have begun. But again I digress.

Can we go back to agriculture as something we are very good at and the world needs? Dairy is currently our biggest export and apparently Fonterra’s income represented 25% of New Zealand’s total export revenue 2 years ago!

So we are good at growing crops, but could we do more? I think so. First, we should be self sustainable. We can’t afford to rely on other markets, especially when things get to a crisis where 1st world countries start fighting over resources. Then we should look at how we can feed the world and get paid for it. As a country surrounded by sea, we do not face the extremes that occur with countries that have large land masses, including our neighbours Australia.

As to Food Miles, I’m all for sustainability, so lets look at this is an opportunity. This can mean focussing on closer markets such as Australia and Asia, but also on biotechnology to get more for less.

Sometimes I think we try to be too clever. Faster computers, cloud computing, cars, planes, rockets, 3D TV, all things I want to continue to enjoy, are meaningless to the ever rowing numbers of starving and malnourished people around the world. Because of our geographic isolation, we became very good at food. Let’s look for more and new ways to exploit this. Lets make sure that if everything turns to dung, we can still feed ourselves, then lets look at how we can help feed the world and pay off our national debt at the same time.

I’ll leave the last word to NASA who have remote sensing technology to monitor conditions affecting food resources and their management: