The evolution of New Zealand’s farming systems towards greater sustainability, and one man’s journey to redefine what it means to be an academic, are the topics for an inaugural professorial lecture being held at the University of Waikato this month.
At just 40 years old, Professor Graeme Doole is one of New Zealand’s leading environmental economists. He grew up on a sheep and beef farm in the Taihape region of the central North Island, and has spent the past decade researching the environmental problems associated with agricultural activity on both sides of the Tasman.
Professor Doole acts as an economic adviser to the Ministry for the Environment, in a position jointly funded by the Ministry and the University’s Waikato Management School.
One key aspect of his role is to help central and regional government develop insights into the economic impact of new environmental policies that will significantly improve the water quality of New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and streams. “Society wants better water quality, but at the same time our national economy is heavily reliant on agriculture. Now we’re faced with trying to reverse-engineer our traditional farming systems, and that’s really difficult,” he says.
In recent years, Professor Doole says his academic practice has shifted towards “a more pragmatic economics where I can engage with people and help to solve real-world problems. You’re always hoping that your work will transform the world for the better, even in some small way, rather than just living in a book.”
The loss of contaminants from farms into waterways remains a huge challenge for New Zealand to overcome. However, Professor Doole believes researchers often spend too long trying to build complex models, rather than looking for simpler solutions that would lead to quick environmental wins.
“We need to ask ourselves, right now, what is the single most effective thing we could do to reduce contaminant loss from New Zealand farms over the next 5-10 years? Is there a role for public funding to speed up the fencing of waterways, or for researchers to focus on the cheap establishment of wetland systems to filter contaminants? What are the options that are cheap, but would give us quick gains as a country?”
About 90% of the larger streams on New Zealand dairy farms have already been fenced, but many smaller ones remain unfenced across dairy, sheep and beef units. Fencing some of the streams in steeper country is difficult, but there remain substantial gains, says Professor Doole. Recent research suggests fencing could reduce sediment and nutrient loss from farmland by around 20%, and reduce microbe loss by a staggering 60%, contributing enormously to making our waterways safe for swimming.
“We need to be urgent. How can we help the people of New Zealand live better lives? What are we going to do next year that’s going to make our environment and water quality better?” says Professor Doole.
So what does an economist think the future holds for New Zealand? New technological advances could mean we won’t even need to rely on grazing animals, he says.
“There are game-changers coming. Last year Dutch scientists worked out how to grow beef tissue in a laboratory using bovine stem cells. It might take 30 years for the technology to become commonplace, but that could reduce the environmental footprint of farming. It all depends on what values are most important to us. As consumers, are we willing to eat lab-grown steak?”
Professor Doole’s inaugural lecture, ‘Old dirt, new boots: the economics of land, water and people’, will be held on Tuesday, 12 April at the University’s Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, starting at 5.15pm. It is free and open to the public. Parking is free after 4.30pm in the University’s Gate 1 carpark.