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Protecting innovation to protect New Zealand’s future

Kiwis are famous for innovating, solving complex problems through a combination of logic, understanding, and a resourceful can-do attitude. Colloquially we call it “Kiwi ingenuity”, and John Britten’s motorbikes, Bruce McLaren’s cars, and our America’s cup yacht designers all come to mind as examples.

Kiwi ingenuity is at the heart of our Primary Sector too, but it requires room for independent thinking. We squash innovation when we tell people ‘how’ to do something, it flourishes when we convince them on ‘why’ and leave the ‘how’ to them. 

Once farmers know the outcome required and understand the principles about how to get there, they can innovate to find a great solution. 

This ingenuity relies on a respect for the difference between Principles and Practices. 

Principle: a fundamental, primary or general law or truth – WHY?

Practice: the action or process of performing or doing something – HOW?

A principle is true regardless of circumstances. A practice needs to be flexible to be appropriate in various circumstances.  There are often many paths that will lead to the same destination. 

A great example of using principles to support innovative practices is our Resource Management Act, which, unlike the rest of the world, calls for “effects-based policy”. We protect the outcome, rather than dictating what practices need to be done to achieve change. It forces politicians to adequately define the problem, we can then ask great questions of researchers to understand the principles that are known about how to get there, and we can then innovate and come up with our own practices and actions. 

It is frustrating for some who are demanding change before the problems and principles are fully understood. It requires honesty about what is known and what is not, along with patience and clear thinking.

Water quality is an excellent example when demonstrating the virtues of effects-based policy. Water quality trends show declines in some catchments and the agriculture sector has been charged with reversing these trends.

Most farmers have strong stewardship values naturally, but what do the farmers do when things get complicated? Perhaps they need to achieve the outcome of improved water quality AND need to run a viable business AND continue to employ members of the community AND afford to reinvest… but each farm has a unique set of criteria to juggle. What works on one side of the fence may not be an appropriate option for the farmers next door, it needs a customised approach to achieve not just one but many outcomes. 

If we focus on the principles and help farmers understand how they apply in each circumstance then we put farmers back in the lead of the issue, they can customise their response, and innovate. 

OVERSEER is a great scenario modelling tool that helps primary professionals shine a light on the principles governing diffuse nutrient losses for individual farms and farm businesses. Once a baseline period has been modelled, then various “what if” scenarios can be created and compared to the baseline. In doing so, the sensitivities of the resource mix of that farm become obvious and the farmer can understand the key principles governing nutrient losses on their properties. It takes a lot of understanding and capability to support farmers in this process and many think it is too expensive. They seek a quick easy solution that is cheap to implement for a complex problem with varied and long lag phases that is not yet well understood – DANGER.

It’s so important for Regional Council planners to work closely with the primary sector when creating plans that require reduced diffuse nutrient loss from farms. Farm businesses are dynamic and at the mercy of the weather as well as the markets. There are already examples in New Zealand where planners who were impatient to appease public demands have tried to dictate a particular management practice instead of focussing on nutrient loss reductions. In the process, they have reduced the options for farmers that are wanting to achieve the same outcomes but are unable to apply that particular practice for all sorts of reasons. In the end it slows down farmers’ ability to change.

At times like this it is even MORE important to continue to hold onto our effects-based policies, focus on what we DO know and be a wee bit patient. 

When it comes to creating water quality policies that require farm businesses to meet reduced nutrient losses, then having the focus on the outcome or effect and NOT on an input will allow farmers to position themselves to make change more rapidly and hopefully to continue to optimise the other business drivers that are crucial for our economy. 

Kiwi farmers need to be able to continue to do what they are famous for… innovation. We can support them by shining a light on the principles and allowing them to choose their own path to achieve the outcome. 

Charlotte Glass is Director of AgriMagic 

Featured in: Farmers Weekly