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From the Pasture to the Plate

Current farming controversies give food for thought to a New Zealand hill-country farmer.

My favourite meal is hazelnut and lemon crusted lamb, served with kumera and fresh beans. Delicious.

Food is not just our sustenance and fuel, it also touches on our identity. How we eat, when we eat, whom we eat with and what we eat is an intrinsic part of culture and personality.

No wonder the debate on food and food production is so emotive.

The ethics of food production means different things from one country to the next. For many African and Asian countries, for example, food production revolves around such issues as matching demand with supply, sustainability, world debt, commodity prices. For most, life means living hand to mouth. While the well-fed graze their TV dinners, starving children look out at them from the TV screen.

For many in the 'Western' world, the debate is focused on quality and on human, animal and environmental welfare. In New Zealand, the airwaves sound with the day's issues - genetically modified crops, sustainable high-country farming, the economic and social stress on farm businesses and families.

Consumers here have the luxury of being fussy about food - but with this luxury comes responsibility.

In New Zealand we have 33 million breeding sheep and 38 million lambs. Four thousand of these sheep graze on the 4,800 hectares in Marlborough which my husband and I farm. As well as sheep, we have 300 beef cattle, eight sheep dogs and 2.5 workers (of which I am the half).

Marlborough sits at the top of New Zealand's South Island and is known as a gourmet province. Salmon and mussels are farmed in the drowned sea valleys of the Marlborough Sounds and 35 per cent of New Zealand's grapes are grown on the plains. Up in the hills, where we are, lamb and beef are grown on pastoral farms for export markets. All in all, agricultural exports accounted for half of New Zealand's export earnings in 1997.

From our hilltop, our perspective of the food chain goes from the grass underfoot to the plate of beef on a restaurant table. 'From pasture to plate' is a familiar term in the New Zealand meat industry. It captures the idea that what we do on our farm directly affects the quality and nature of the product the consumer eats.

As farmers we receive mixed signals. The markets tell us that we should produce food of perfect quality, and in a way that conforms to standards of animal welfare and food safety. If our product does not make the grade it is discounted. We are told to produce food of a consistent size, appearance and flavour and yet urged to cut costs and inputs.

Supermarkets want less medicine to be given to sheep but farmers need to protect their animals from parasites and disease. Consumers want both pre-prepared meals and food that is free of additives and preservatives. The average time taken to cook a meal in most 'Western' countries in 1998 was 25 minutes.

To make a living, most farmers depend on the volume of product they can sell. But the pressure is on to use less of the inputs which sustain production levels, such as fertilizers, chemicals and vaccines.

New Zealand farmers have a reputation for being able to build or repair anything from a trusty piece of number 8 wire. Nowadays farmers have a whole range of technologies available to them. Debate has raged over one of the most controversial of these technologies - genetic modification.

Should genetically modified foods be labelled and, if so, who should enforce this? Should flora and fauna with DNA that has had a gene physically inserted into it be allowed to be grown in New Zealand?

Glossy women's magazines talk about Frankenstein food, and question the possible health effects. And will pesticides and chemicals, sprayed liberally because they are tolerated by specially modified crops, harm the ecology of the country?

Farmers want to know who owns the genes of the plants and animals, and who will control the distribution systems for these new products. Will the gap between rich and poor countries widen as large companies or scientific institutions claim genetics as their intellectual property?

The issues are hard to see clearly in the muddy waters stirred up by media hype and sensationalism. People struggle to come to terms with the ethical issues amid the din of opinions and evidence. The terms 'moral' and 'ethical' are used randomly and often in a confined sense. When the Wild Greens destroyed a trial crop of genetically modified potatoes in New Zealand, their spokesperson described the act as 'morally necessary'.

Discussion with a few of my farming friends, all aged in our twenties and thirties, reveals that it is primarily economic, practical and lifestyle considerations that drive our choices on what we produce and how we produce it.

For example, if we can make money growing sheep and beef we will do so. If this works well for the land type and maintains or improves the quality of our resources, we will stick with it: farm businesses tend to be family orientated and the concept of farming for the next generation is important. And if we feel comfortable about what we are doing from an ethical point of view, and if it suits our lifestyle, we will go on producing in this manner.

'If you are not here to make money, then we wish you well with your hobby,' goes the farmers' saying. Viability is a key consideration for production. In 1997-98 the average taxable profit for a finishing/breeding farmer in the South Island was $21,000 (about GBP7,500). All living expenses, capital purchases and debt repayments have to be deducted from this. The average rate of return on total farm capital investment for all farm types in New Zealand in 1996-97 was 1.9 per cent. There is a fine line between profitability and poverty.

New Zealand farmers operate without government subsidies. So for the bank account to be healthy at the end of the year, they must maximize output and produce what the customer wants.

My parents, Garfield and Helen Hayes, produce 3,500 lambs per year for the export market from their 800 hectare farm. They have to conform to the strict quality assurance scheme of the meat export company to which they sell. They have to keep records of the medicines given to the lambs and adhere to animal welfare standards. This is a direct response to pressures passed from consumers overseas through supermarkets to exporters and finally on to the farmer.

Unfortunately, the consumer does not only demand this extra input of time and money and a reduction in the use of chemicals. They also want cheap food of consistently good quality. So farmers work harder and harder to balance the books - and feel pressured to use technologies that produce more and better for less.

Technology can help to cut down inputs, raise production and improve quality and efficiency.

For example, a large percentage of New Zealand's ewes are scanned after mating with a handheld ultra-sound device to see if they are pregnant, and how many lambs they are carrying. Those who are bearing twins can then be separated from the main flock and fed extra pasture so that they produce two good sized lambs. The lambs from these ewes can be bred from, so as to increase the overall fertility of the flock.

This technology aids genetic selection without actually altering the DNA itself. From an ethical point of view, it is an enhancement of a traditional breeding method.

The ethics of other technologies are more debatable. For instance, if sheep could withstand the negative effects of parasites, we could cut down on parasite control medicines. Researchers are hunting for the gene in a sheep's DNA that makes the sheep resistant to parasites. When it is found, it will be possible to blood-test sheep for this trait and, in the long run, to copy the gene and insert it into the DNA of other sheep. The need for medicines would be decreased.

It seems to me that the issue is not whether a technology is good or bad in itself, but how it is applied in different cases. In 1998, 75 per cent of New Zealanders polled said they would support genetic engineering if it resulted in improved medicines and vaccines. As farmers we must investigate the risks and advantages before adopting new technologies. Perhaps we should be ready to increase our short-term financial risk to increase our long-term sustainability.

On their side, I believe governments must ensure that all the unanswered questions are independently researched before genetically modified plants are introduced into ecosystems. In March 1999, the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners raised serious health warnings about GM food. What happens if a new gene is introduced into the wrong section of a plant's DNA, leading to subtle changes in its chemistry? What if a new gene moves from a modified plant to an unmodified bystander?

When the first European settlers in New Zealand brought gorse seeds in their pockets, they had no idea how well the plant would adapt to its new environment. Gorse is now a serious weed and requires advanced chemical control to contain its spread. Do the 'colonists' of the 21st century, the scientists, farmers and seed and genetic companies, really understand the implications of their new plant and animal varieties?

Choices on the farm are guided by practical as well as economic considerations: avocados can not grow in the cold climate of the Southern Alps!

A large-scale move towards more organic sheep and beef farming is hampered by serious practical problems, which are only slowly being tackled. Most of New Zealand's food production systems could not run at the current production levels without sprays, dips, drenches and fertilizers.

The fact that economic benefits cannot always be guaranteed is a serious brake on the development of organic products in New Zealand. Until consumers pay a decent premium for organics and enough can be produced to fill year-round market orders, the move to organics will be hamstrung. In most countries organics make up under 0.5 per cent of total agricultural production. The exceptions are Germany and Austria, where two and three per cent respectively of the agricultural land was under organic production in 1994.

If consumers want to remove chemical residues from their food, they may have to sacrifice their devotion to appearance and cheapness.

The good news is that there are many farming technologies that save costs but also improve sustainability. For instance, direct drilling of seed into the ground, rather than ploughing, is cheaper and reduces soil erosion.

Some farmers, of course, are firmly committed to organics. David Musgrave produces organic flaxseed oil and crops on a 140 hectare farm in Canterbury, New Zealand. He farms organically because of 'a bit of everything' - scientific interest, economic incentives and conviction. He combines older, less intensive methods and highly advanced scientific techniques.

But do organic farmers hold the moral high ground? Conventional farmers need concrete evidence that organic production methods are attractive and viable. The financial and practical difficulties must be addressed by society as a whole.

For my parents, who farm beef and crops as well as sheep, decision-making is closely linked to personal beliefs. Whether they are investing in a piece of machinery or buying a certain breed of bull, they make their decisions during a period of reflection where they seek God's direction. They maintain that if, as they believe, God has a plan for each individual, he must also have a plan for their farm, for future generations and the world.

Perhaps there is something in this idea of a period of silence, to think beyond short-term personal ambitions. If people right along the food chain thought more about following generations, the issues of right and wrong might stand out more clearly.

Dick Hubbard, one of New Zealand's best-known food-processing businessmen, believes that corporations can benefit financially from being altruistic, focusing on social improvements in the community as well as on generating profits. In his business he tries to look 'at the whole picture as to why the company should exist and how it should work.' One of his bottom line measurements is the number of jobs created for that year.

The recipe for ensuring that food production brings health and prosperity to growers, food processors, consumers and the environment is a complex one. Businesses involved in the food industry will benefit from being more transparent and taking moral and social leadership, because this will increase consumers' trust. The BSE crisis shows the damage that can be done through a lack of openness - on the part of politicians, as well as the food industry.

Consumers need to be given trust-worthy information on genetically modified food, so that they can make informed choices.

The Government should engage the public in constructive debate and ensure that the laws are up to date and workable.

The food industry, including farmers, needs to be prepared to adapt to new requirements. New Zealand's meat industry can be proud of its efforts to produce Halal meat for Muslim consumers. Processing plants which export to Muslim countries now have an accredited slaughter person performing the Halal cut on the animal. An arrow on the floor of the plant indicates the direction of Mecca so a prayer can be said for each animal.

In their turn, consumers must use their purchasing power intelligently and be prepared to pay more for products that cost more to produce. They must think more widely than 'Will this product be of a consistent quality?' or 'Will I impress my friends by serving this product?'. They must think hard about who they buy their food from. For the consumer dollar is a powerful tool.

In the end, the quality of the food we eat is everybody's responsibility - from the farmer who looks after the animal in the pasture or the crop in the field right through to the consumer who eats it off the plate.

By Joanna Grigg

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Publishing permission refers to the rights of FANW to publish the full text of this article on this website.