There’s a helluva lot more we can do with irrigation as we get more and more precise about delivering water in the right spot, in the right amounts, Gavin Forrest says.
The Federated Farmers Manager Policy and Advocacy was answering questions put to a panel of primary sector experts at the final Growing Kai Under Increasing Dry event at Te Papa: Are we beyond peak irrigation? How do we transition to less reliance on irrigation in the places where it’s not sustainable?
“If we’re going to move to a low carbon economy, we’ve got to think more about water storage, about hydro [electricity] and bit the bullet and realise irrigation is not a bad thing,” Forrest said.
Fellow panelist Ivan Lawrie of the Foundation for Arable Research agreed.
“When I was at university 30 years ago, nutrient probes were things that were used in experimental research plots. Now they’re widely used by farmers, with all sorts of moisture sensors.
“We have proof from our own research on-site in Canterbury that irrigated vs non-irrigated establishment trials show that improvements in soil structure, water holding capacity and porosity is far superior on the irrigated side of the farm versus the non-irrigated.
“I think we have to fully embrace these things,” Lawrie said. “And also understand that farming is about trade-offs If we want to produce food there will be certain things that will be compromised, and we’ll have to make some decisions.”
Liz Tupuhi of DairyNZ said irrigation was definitely needed in New Zealand agriculture’s toolkit. Without it, we would limit potential for diversification and land use change.
“Northland, for example, would probably be heading very rapidly towards being a dryland farming area.”
Michelle Sands from Horticulture NZ said Te Mana o the Way provided a framework for thinking about the role of irrigation, within environmental limits, into the future. Some people get very concerned about irrigation because in certain catchments it had facilitated a land use change that increased contaminant loadings beyond environmental limits.
“But irrigation doesn’t have to be that way,” she said.
Kicking off the panel discussion in front of a live audience of about 90, with a similar number listening on-line, Forrest was asked about the government’s role in enabling adaptation to droughts and climate change.
“The first role is not to stuff things up,” was his blunt reply.
“My belief is government should always ask the question, ‘should we do anything at all?’. And the second question should be, ‘if we do anything, can we make it better, not worse?’.”
Forrest was in no doubt governments had good intentions, wanting to help producers and growers. But it had to be very sure that the regulatory framework it provided was practical and achieved outcomes with minimal disruption to what farmers do. Catchment solutions were far more effective than blanket rules. It’s other roles were in research and providing infrastructure.
Later in the conversation Forrest said more research was needed on the actual and real impacts of agriculture, horticulture and forestry on the environment.
“I think there’s huge frustration among farmers and growers about the amount of misinformation out there…they feel bludgeoned by misinformation and it doesn’t make them positive about the future.”
Ivan Lawrie, and NZ Winegrowers GM Sustainability Edwin Massey, said we needed to keep working at transferring the excellent science and research generated by our universities and crown research institutes to farmers on the ground.
Massey said if we want to drive best land use and practice we needed to provide quality and practical information on planning, measuring and reporting so that the behaviour becomes embedded in the new generation of farmers coming through that will face increasingly dry conditions.’
Lawrie cited the uptake of low or no tillage cultivation as an example of farmers willing to change for environmental gains.
Droughts were possibly of lesser concern to arable farmers compared to livestock farmers and horticulturalists because they are growing multiple crops in any given cycle, and the fact 80% of Canterbury based arable farmers have irrigation, he said.
In the last 15 years there has been an increase in winter cropping autumn-sown crops that are much more efficient at capturing rainwater throughout the year “and giving them a bit more resilience at the end if we’re going into dry summers.”
Asked for one thing they would use government funding for to improve our resilience in drought, Gavin Forrest said we should be more open to the potential of genetic engineering. “We have a closed book on that at the moment. It seems rather strange we would simply leave a vital potential out of the toolbox without even having a conversation.”
Liz Tupuhi wanted more research on how to retain water in soils.
“We need to be able to slow down the overland flow or whatever flow of water, to decrease evapotranspiration. In Australia they’re doing a lot of work about slowing down flow through the river systems and it’s helping retain moisture in the soil,” she said.
“The other thing would be what would it look like if we’re building infrastructure and storage to harvest [winter] high flows.”
- Growing Kai under Increasing Dry includes a series of webinars sponsored by The Deep South, Resilience to Nature’s Challenges and Our Land and Water National Science Challenges. You can watch the webinars at: https://resiliencechallenge.nz/events/growing-kai-under-increasing-dry/